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Gramsci for communists

Graphic from Barbwire.

For more by Doug Enaa Greene, click HERE.

For more discussion on the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, click HERE.

By Doug Enaa Greene

To my mother.

June 22, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The purpose of the Red History Lecture Series since its inception has been to discuss lesser known or neglected socialist and communist figures, movements, and events. So it may be rightfully asked – why discuss Antonio Gramsci?

Gramsci is fairly well known with his work easily available and ideas discussed in universities, countless commentaries and elsewhere. However, there is something potentially worse than obscurity and neglect, and that is to be misunderstood. Unfortunately, that is the fate which has befallen Gramsci.

Gramsci has been claimed by academics who spin out the latest in obstructionist “theory” with no relation to revolution, Eurocommunists who need a “left” cover for their revisionism, ex-radicals who think Gramsci's “war of position” means working within the US Democratic Party, and cultural critics who sneer at any and all forms of Marxism.

All this betrays the life and thought of Antonio Gramsci, who lived and died as a revolutionary communist. He was not writing for them, but for us -- communists and the working class. Our purpose here is not survey the vast amount of commentary (some of it immensely valuable) that exists by Marxists and non-Marxists on Gramsci's work, others have ably done that, rather, the purpose here is to present some of Gramsci's basic ideas and concepts from the whole of his work that communists can use in the revolutionary struggle.

However, it is necessary to warn the reader that while this text is not comprehensive and is intended to be pedagogical and introductory, it still calls for sustained attention. There is no avoiding the fact that the concepts, ideas and explanations introduced here are complex and require lengthy explanation. Certain concepts will be introduced, but their definitions will not be given until later in the text. There is no avoiding this difficulty. Theory is not something that one can necessarily “get” right away in the same way as “instant gratification” which is the reigning ideal of American consumerism. Study of the difficult ideas found in revolutionary theory is a protracted process that there is no way avoiding.

I. Biography[1]

Antonio Gramsci was born on January 22, 1891, in Ales on the island of Sardinia. He was the fourth of seven sons to Francesco Gramsci (1860–1937), who was a low-level governmental official from Gaeta, married to Giuseppina Marcias (1861–1932) from a local landowning family. His father had financial problems and difficulties with the police which caused the family to live in dire straits. Gramsci's early life was not only marked by poverty but he was a visible hunchback, the result of a childhood accident. He spent his formative years in Sicily, an island that was little removed from feudalism and had not reaped the benefits of Italian unification.

At a young age, Gramsci developed a passion for reading and the effects of poverty led to him “to wish that life would change, that somehow … his family [would be] rich and respected … ”[2] He was a brilliant student, who despite missing several years of school, was recognized as possessing a keen mind. The interrupted schooling led Gramsci to develop “an instinct of rebellion against the rich”.[3] They were going to school while he was forced to work for his family; it didn’t seem fair or just.

In 1908 Gramsci’s academic talents eventually led him to school in Cagliari where his Sardinian identity led to “dislike of all ‘continentals’, on whom with some justice all Sardinia’s inequities could be blamed”.[4] The injustices in Sardinia led Gramsci to write in a school essay that “social privileges and differences, being products of society and not of nature, can be overcome”.[5] However, Gramsci was still thinking through how to overcome social inequality. In 1911, Gramsci was accepted on a scholarship to the University of Turin on the Italian mainland.

Turin was the center of the radical impulses of the Italian labor movement. While at University, Gramsci was confronted with a modern industrial world that contrasted greatly with peasant Sardinia During his early period in Turin, Gramsci focused more on his studies than politics. However, Gramsci was interested in the intellectual currents of the left. Yet Gramsci did not approve of the Italian Socialist Party's policy that supported for the liberal Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti and viewed southern Italy (including Sardinia) as “the Vendee of Italy”.[6]

Gramsci read various journals of the intelligentsia and was influenced greatly by his teachers. Gramsci’s professors introduced him to thinkers such as Hegel and Croce, idealist philosophers. Gramsci’s professors “preached idealism and a cult of personal ethical responsibility … with an adhesion to socialism and a rejection of the semi-racism which had characterized the Italian socialist party since 1900”.[7] Gramsci was also associating with a crowd of socialists that included future Communist Party leaders Palmiro Togliatti and Angelo Tasca.

During the 1913 elections (the first with universal male suffrage), Gramsci watched as “the property-owners of Sardinia rapidly made common cause with the ruling class on the mainland and subordinated their erstwhile Sard nationalism to their class interests because they feared a threat to property by the socialists … were all continentals responsible for Sardinia’s ills, or merely the property-owning class and their class-allies on the island?”[8] Shortly thereafter, Gramsci joined the socialist party.

Gramsci was not initially active in the PSI. He was still trying to make an academic career, preferably as a linguist. While in school, Gramsci encountered the ideas of intellectuals such as Antonio Labriola (from whom he borrowed the phrase “philosophy of praxis”), Giovanni Gentile and Benedetto Croce. These thinkers would influence Gramsci's vibrant form of Hegelian Marxism throughout his life, even though he would use Croce as a foil to develop his own “philosophy of praxis” in the Prison Notebooks.

However, Gramsci devoted himself to activism as Italy moved into World War I. During this period, Gramsci was influenced by Benito Mussolini, leader of the revolutionary faction of the PSI after 1911. When Mussolini called for Italian intervention in the war, Gramsci offered support in one of his earliest articles. Gramsci believed that neutral position of the PSI should advocate “active and operative neutrality”.[9] This active neutrality would allow the party to put “the class struggle back at the center of the nation’s life”.[10] Active neutrality and the class struggle would allow the PSI to lead the workers against the bourgeois “which will signal the transition of civilization from an imperfect to alternative, more perfect form”.[11] However, as Mussolini moved farther away from the PSI to an open break, Gramsci remained in the party. It also wasn’t long before Gramsci himself became an antiwar militant.

Yet his article in support of Mussolini shows some traits of Gramsci’s conception and praxis that would figure prominently in his later thinking. Gramsci’s emphasis on class struggle and an active neutrality shows his voluntarist streak. Gramsci wanted the socialist party to make a revolution, not just wait for one to happen. This thinking carries over to 1916 where Gramsci says, “to know oneself means to be oneself, to free oneself from a state of chaos, to exist as an element of order-but of one’s own order and one’s own discipline in striving for an ideal”.[12] For Gramsci this ideal was socialism and he earnestly worked for it while in Turin as a journalist.

Yet Gramsci was not just an ordinary writer, he immersed himself in the Turin labor movement. Gramsci “rapidly earned the reputation for being an intellectual to whom the workers could speak without fear … he used to speak and he had a great gift of knowing how to speak to everyone”.[13]

Gramsci wasn’t just interested in the conditions of the proletariat, but to raise their consciousness and culture. For Gramsci, culture “is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations”.[14] Clearly for Gramsci, a maturing Marxist, he wanted the working class to understand the world so that they could change it.

A spur to Gramsci’s ideas was the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the developing condition of Italy under the strains of war. Gramsci hailed the Russian Revolution in a provocative article called, “The Revolution Against Kapital”. To Gramsci, the Bolshevik “conquest bears witness that the canons of historical materialism are not so rigid as might have been and has been thought”.[15] The Bolsheviks “live Marxist thought … this thought sees as the dominant factor in history, not raw economic facts, but men … men coming to understand economic facts, judging them and adapting them to their will until this becomes the driving force of the economy and molds objective reality … ”[16] Thus in direct contrast to Filippo Turati, reformist leader of the PSI who said that Marxists can’t make history, Gramsci believes they can and should.

Yet aside from the Bolshevik praxis of breaking with a rigid interpretation of Marx and taking power, what else did Gramsci learn from their seizure of power? Gramsci was attracted to the Soviet form as a democratic basis of a new socialist order. The Soviet was seen as an “organ in a continuous state of development … All workers can take part in the Soviets, and all workers can exert their influence in modifying the Soviets and bringing them closer into line with what is wanted and needed”.[17] Gramsci summed the soviet form as “the vital élan of the new Russian history”.[18] For Gramsci, a revolutionary praxis and the soviet were key components of the Russian experience.

However, they were not just isolated to Russia. As the war was coming to an end, Italy was fast approaching a revolutionary explosion. In Italy, “the cost of living climbed from 100 to 624 between 1913 and 1920”.[19] Wages stagnated in comparison “the index for daily earnings rose from 3.54 lire to 6.04 lire over the same period [1915 to 1918]”.[20] Yet the capitalist class made out like bandits from the war. Just to take the example of automobiles, the prominent industry in Turin, the profit rates from 1914 to 1917 “were said to have risen from 8.2 to 30.5 percent”.[21] To top it all off, Italy gained little new territory from the war at the cost of a half million dead and an equal number maimed.

Furthermore, tens of thousands of workers and peasants flocked to the left. From 1919 to 1920, Italy was awash in “social confrontation-massive strike waves in industry and agriculture, direct action in the factories, local food and price actions, land occupations, and constant displays of collective strength in rallies, marches, and processions”.[22] To take just the example of direct action in the factories, this shows how the thinking of soviets functioned in Gramsci’s thinking. In Turin, internal committees were prominent in automobile factories. Internal committees had first been formed in 1906 at a Fiat plant and was “roughly comparable to the shop steward in the United States-was not regarded as a permanent institution by the industrialists; the idea was to choose a new committee for each dispute”.[23] However, Gramsci wanted to make the internal committees not merely permanent but to transform them into soviets.

Many of the committees in Turin in 1919 “were chosen from those acceptable to management, but later they were often selected from members of the socialist party. Thus internal committees were not democratically elected bodies that actually represented the views of all the workers”.[24] Gramsci believed that “the workshop commissions are organs of worker democracy which must be freed from the constraints imposed on them by the bosses and infused with a new life and energy”. Once the commissions were freed from capitalist control, then they would “be the organs of proletariat power, replacing the capitalist in all his useful managerial and administrative functions”.[25] So Gramsci was advocating worker control and democracy at the very point of production.

Gramsci continued with his educational activities, working closely with worker activists throughout Turin. In the heated atmosphere of postwar Italy, it didn’t take long for the idea of soviets to catch on and spread throughout much of the north. Internal Committees or rechristened Factory Councils spread across Turin and other cities in 1919 and 1920. However, factory councils and strong unions threatened capitalist power in a fundamental way.

Things came to a head in Turin in 1920 in April when a general strike spread across the province of Piedmont. The strike involved, “half a million industrial and agricultural workers and affected a population of about four million”.[26] The strike was ultimately defeated, but labor flared up a few months later in August. This time, workers in Turin occupied their factories and “the actual management of the plants lay in the hands of the factory councils”.[27] A situation of dual power was developing with some workers “enrolled in Red Guards organized at first to protect the plants against assault, later used to maintain discipline among those workers whose enthusiasm began to wane”.[28] By mid-September, the industrialists signed an agreement with the workers that brought a major pay raises, overtime pay, holiday pay, and no lay-offs.

Furthermore, even workers' control was accepted on principle. Workers returned factories to their owners, but “within a year most of these gains were obliterated”.[29] Workers' control became an “investigation to determine whether the conditions of industry really required the reduction of wages that the industrialists declared to be necessary”.[30] In other words, the capitalists were still calling the shots.
The response of Gramsci to the Turin strike in April was that

revolutionary energies in our city have been intensifying over the past few months., tending at all costs to expand and seek an outlet. And this outlet must not for the moment be localized bloodletting that would be dangerous and perhaps even fatal, but rather a stepping up of the campaign of preparation all over the country, an extension of our forces and a general acceleration of the process of development of the elements which must all come together in a common enterprise.[31]

In other words, make the Italian revolution. The instrument that should have spearheaded this revolution was the PSI. However, the PSI did nothing to extend the revolution in Italy. In April, the PSI congress in Milan approved a “motion sanctioning a project for the construction of councils was again approved by a large majority; but while the party leaders chattered about theoretical projects at Milan, they were permitting the real thing to be destroyed at Turin”.[32]

In September, the PSI actually put up the question of revolution on its agenda, the results “the question of converting the factory occupations into a national revolutionary challenge was referred by the PSI leadership to the CGL[union] National Council, which rejected the idea by only 591,245 to 409, 569 votes”.[33]

What’s more, the PSI had by 1919 decided to adhere to the Comintern and was proclaiming revolutionary action. Yet at the moment of decision, the PSI faltered. The PSI Maximalists “fed expectations without resolving them. They fanned a mood of revolutionary excitement but refused to shape it into a revolutionary challenge … But when the masses took them at their word and acted, they counseled discipline and patience”.[34] The PSI said in words that they were adhering to the Comintern and a new revolutionary path, but in deeds they failed.

Gramsci’s opinion of the PSI soured accordingly. He said that the “Socialist Party watches the course of events like a spectator, it never has an opinion of its own to express, based on the revolutionary theses of Marxism and the Communist International; it never launches slogans that can be interpreted by the masses, lay down a general line and unify or concentrate revolutionary action”.[35]

The PSI was not living up to its professed program as a communist vanguard. Furthermore, the PSI “needs to be in a position to be in a position to give real leadership to the movement as a whole and to impress upon the masses the conviction that there is an order within the terrible disorder of the present, an order that, when systemized, will regenerate society and adapt the instruments of labor to make them satisfy the basic needs of life and civil progress”.[36]

Finally, the PSI must reformists “must be eliminated from the Party, and its leadership must devote all its efforts to putting the workers’ forces on a war footing … and organize the setting up of Factory Councils to exercise control over industrial and agricultural production”.[37] The Party needed to purge the reformists, assume a Bolshevik form and press for the formation of Soviets and/or Factory Councils.

For Gramsci, one of key aspects of the Bolshevik experience was a decidedly revolutionary praxis as opposed to fatalism. Revolutionary praxis by the proletariat meant democratic control by the Soviets. However in order to spread the Soviets across Italy, a disciplined Communist Party was necessary to agitate and organize them.

However, the PSI split over the questions that Gramsci was raising a year later, leading to the formation of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Due to the influence of the Comintern and sectarianism of the first General Secretary Amadeo Bordiga, only a small communist party was formed, but there remained many pro-communist socialists (or “centrists”) who were outside of the PCI.

Although the war caused an upsurge of class struggle and revolutionary energies on the left, it also led to the growth of the Mussolini's Blackshirts. The Blackshirts were determined to restore class harmony in Italy by attacking those they perceived as internal enemies notably socialists and trade unionists, particularly throughout the Po Valley. The fascists also believed Italy had been cheated out of the spoils of war at the Versailles Peace conference and they demanded control of the ports of Trieste and Fiume, which had been awarded to Yugoslavia.

The fascists willingly allowed themselves to be used by landlords to murder small farmers and socialist organizers in the countryside. The fascist squadrons offered jobs and land to the small farmers, a tactic aimed at turning them away from socialist trade unions. But early supporters of fascism dropped out as soon as Mussolini began defending the landlords and watering down the initial populist radicalism of the fascist program.

In short, Mussolini retreated from any agenda calling for a social redistribution of wealth. In return, his party received funding from landlords and sectors of big business. When Mussolini ultimately took power, it was not through a putsch, but by means of a carefully planned bluff by threatening a “March on Rome”. The King refused to disperse the Blackshirts and handed the government over to Mussolini in October 1922.

Despite the intense repression against the left and labor unions, Mussolini had to tolerate varying forms of liberal, socialist and communist opposition for a time (including representatives in parliament). However, following elections in 1924, where fascists used widespread fraud, Mussolini was denounced by the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti. Matteotti was assassinated for his vocal opposition to the fascists. Despite an attempted cover-up by Mussolini, the assassination led to a temporary crisis for the government as various forces of the opposition took action.

Mussolini managed to weather the storm and by the mid-1920s, he had dismantled the last feeble constitutional and democratic protections in Italy, creating a ruthless police state.
What were Gramsci and the PCI doing during the rise to power of the fascists? In December 1921, the Comintern urged communist parties to work with socialists and other labor and left forces in a united front to combat fascism, reaction and to defend the living standards of workers. The PCI under Bordiga possessed no strategy to fight fascism and was not willing to form a united front with the PSI (whom they'd just split from).

Rather, the Communists believed that united front organizations should be formed only if they were under party control. Furthermore, Bordiga believed that there was nothing unique about fascism, but that represented just another form of bourgeois dictatorship, so he discounted the possibility of Mussolini coming to power.[38]

Gramsci, although allied with Bordiga, warned that “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 and governing caste. No violence will be spared in subjecting the industrial and agricultural proletariat to servile labour: there will be a bid to smash once and for all the working class's organ of political struggle (the Socialist Party) and to incorporate its organs of economic resistance (the trade unions and co-operatives) into the machinery of the bourgeois State”.[39] Gramsci argued for a militant fight back against fascism, saying that the moment was critical:

The freedom of choice imposes certain duties upon us, absolute duties which concern the life of the people and are inherent in the future of the masses who suffer and hope. Today, there exists only one form of revolutionary solidarity: to win. It therefore demands of us that we should not neglect any single element that might put us in a condition to win. Today, there exists a party that truly expresses the interests of the proletariat; that expresses the interests not only of the Italian proletariat, but of the workers' International as a whole. Today, the workers must have and can have faith.[40]

Needless to say, Gramsci's advice was not followed and even after the fascist seizure of power, no united front was formed with the socialists. Gramsci, along with the PCI leadership of Bordiga were concerned with what type of regime was to follow the fall of Mussolini, seeing no future for bourgeois democracy but rather a dictatorship of the proletariat. To this end, the Party refused to ally with the bourgeois opposition, who had acquiesced in Mussolini's rise to power. The Communist Party's refusal to adopt the united front would be a bone of contention with the Comintern for the next several years.

From May 1922 through November 1923, Gramsci moved to Moscow where he worked as a representative of the Communist International. While there, he met and married Julia Schucht, with whom he had two sons. During his time in Russia, Gramsci came to support the tactic of the united front after realizing that the era of revolutionary assaults had ended in western Europe and that the road to power would be far more protracted. Gramsci's preoccupation of how to make a revolution in the west would be one of the guiding themes of the Prison Notebooks. In late 1923, Gramsci moved to Vienna to work for the Comintern (spending time with Georg Lukacs and Victor Serge) and to reorganize the PCI, which had been hit hard by repression and factionalism.

In 1924, Gramsci was elected to the leadership of the PCI and also as a parliamentary deputy for the Veneto. At the PCI's Lyons Congress of January 1926, Gramsci leadership and political line (and his victory over Bordiga) was secured with the support of over 90% of the party. The Lyons Theses outlined the PCI's main tasks as: “(a) to organize and unify the industrial and rural proletariat for the revolution: (b) to organize and mobilize 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”.[41]

Many of the themes and questions from the Lyons Theses (also touched on in his incomplete essay Some aspects of the southern question and the Prison Notebooks.

Gramsci was not leader of the PCI for long. On November 8, 1926, he was arrested (despite his parliamentary immunity) and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The fascist prosecutor is said to have remarked that "For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning”.[42] For the next eleven years, Gramsci was subjected to physical and psychological agony as his health was destroyed in fascist dungeons. Ultimately, Gramsci died on April 27, 1937 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Yet the prosecutor did not succeed in keeping Gramsci's brain from working. Until his health gave way, Gramsci studied, read and wrote close to 3000 pages in over 30 notebooks. The notebooks were conceived by Gramsci as “something fur ewig [for always]...I would like to work intensively and systematically, according to a predetermined plan, on certain subjects which could absorb me totally and give focus and direction to my inner life”.[43] Gramsci's work was never finished or systematized, but was written in a haphazard manner developing multiple themes at once. Gramsci had to write with a lack of sources and an eye to the prison censor (although he was arguably not writing in code).[44]

The themes of the Prison Notebooks cover a multitude of themes: his theory of hegemony which explains the maintenance of bourgeois rule by a combination of coercion and consent. According to Gramsci, the bourgeois does not rely merely on the armed apparatus of the state, but by using the various institutions of civil society. These institutions can be churches, traditional intellectuals, political parties, and the media. These institutions help to disseminate a certain world view that becomes the common sense of the masses. The bourgeois use of the institutions of civil society helps it to create a ruling bloc to maintain control. In contrast, it is the task of the proletariat to create its own counter-hegemony through its own institutions in order to challenge capital’s rule.

Gramsci shows that it is possible to explain capital’s rule in society without just saying that it uses only force, but that people consent to it. Gramsci’s work shows the multitude of ways that the superstructure influences the base which helps any Marxist avoid economic determinism.

Gramsci discusses the formation of intellectuals, how the bourgeois state manages crises, and how revolutionaries can create a Communist Party (or Modern Prince) capable of building their own counter-hegemony by uniting and leading other oppressed classes and strata with their own vision in a war of position toward the seizure of power.

II. The Furnace of faith

While in prison, Gramsci undertook to restore the dynamism of Marxist theory and practice. The prevailing Marxisms, as upheld by either the Second or Third Internationals, were largely evolutionary, deterministic, dogmatic and reformist. Gramsci, by contrast, viewed Marxism as a critical and living revolutionary theory that was critically engaged not only with other ideologies (seeking to learn from them), but also with popular culture and the 'common sense' of the masses in order to raise them to a higher level: “a philosophy of praxis cannot but present itself at the outset in a polemical and critical guise, as superseding the existing mode of thinking and existing concrete thought (the existing cultural world)”.[45]

Furthermore, Gramsci was opposed to forms of Marxism that displayed a “fatalistic conception” stating that it was necessary to “prepare its funeral oration, emphasizing its usefulness for a certain period of history, but precisely for this reason underlining the need to bury it with all due honours”.[46] And it is to Gramsci's efforts to regenerate Marxism and socialism as a living and anti-deterministic force with a radically open view of history. that we now turn to.

At the time Gramsci became a revolutionary, the leaders of the PSI and the Second International saw socialism as something that was preordained and guaranteed by the march of history and the development of the productive forces. The progress of socialism was to be measured by the growing membership rolls and number of parliamentary deputies for Socialist Party. Despite the revolutionary rhetoric of the Italian Socialist Party, its vision of “revolutionary” socialism was gradualist, evolutionary, and in line with the “orthodox Marxism” as embodied in theories of Karl Kautsky:

The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what conditions, or what forms it will come.[47]

Whether couched in the “orthodox” tones of the Second International or the Comintern, this gradualistic conception of socialism was utterly foreign to Gramsci. Part of Gramsci's effort to return dynamism to Marxist theory and practice, or the philosophy of praxis, was to break with the conception of socialism as a slow and steady march of progress, but (to paraphrase the Peruvian Marxist Jose Carlos Mariategui who made a similar effort) to envision it as a heroic and active creation. Gramsci condemned those who expected socialism to be granted through a majority vote by the institutions of the bourgeois state on no uncertain terms: "To wait to become the majority plus one is the program of timid souls who expect socialism from a royal decree countersigned by two ministers”.[48] A socialism that focused solely on electoral process and neglected to develop a new culture and revolutionary vision for the future was betraying its calling.

Socialism and Marxism, according to Gramsci, needed to be concerned above all with raising the intellectual and cultural level of the masses upward: “to lead them to a higher conception of life. If it affirms the need for contact between intellectuals and simple it is not in order to restrict scientific activity and preserve unity at the low level of the masses, but precisely in order to construct an intellectual-moral bloc which can make politically possible the intellectual progress of the mass and not only of small intellectual groups”.[49] Contrary to many socialists in his time and ours, who have taken an insular view of Marxism that scoffs at popular culture and the lives of the masses, Gramsci took a passionate interest in both.

When Gramsci and his comrades in Turin established L'Ordine Nuovo in 1919, they were not only interested in developing the internal commissions in the factories into future organs of workers' rule in Italy, but also with linking “these institutions, co-ordinating and ordering them into a highly centralized hierarchy of competences and powers, while respecting the necessary autonomy and articulation of each, is to create a genuine workers' democracy here and now -- a workers' democracy in effective and active opposition to the bourgeois State, and prepared to replace it here and now in all its essential functions of administering and controlling the national heritage”.[50] Socialism in Gramsci’s vision, was as much a cultural revolution as a political revolution that would transform the masses.

However, socialism was not a new world that would just spontaneously arrive from the struggles of the masses. Rather, Gramsci believed that the revolutionary party had a vital role to play as an educator in values, faith and the communist vision:

The Party must carry on its role as the organ of communist education, as the furnace of faith, the depository of doctrine, the supreme power harmonizing the organized and disciplined forces of the working class and peasantry and leading them towards the ultimate goal….But the social life of the working class is rich in the very institutions and activities which need to be developed. fully organized and coordinated into a broad and flexible system that is capable of absorbing and disciplining the entire working class.[51]

The Party worked among all levels of the oppressed masses – political, economic, cultural, and ideological – to inculcate the communist ideal. And this faith was not something that was in opposition to active struggle, but demanded it.

In order for the communist vision to take hold in reality – it takes daring and struggle (as Mao might have said, “dare to struggle, dare to win”) of the revolutionary masses, discipline and unity, to assault and bring down the citadels of bourgeois power. And more than this, the Party, had the twin task of learning from and teaching the masses, so that together the two can grasp, in practice, the necessary solutions to their problems.

But the concrete, integral solution of the problems of socialist life can only arise from Communist practice: collective discussion, sympathetically modifying consciousness, unifying it and inspiring it with active enthusiasm. It is a Communist and revolutionary act to tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ must cease to be a mere formula, an occasion for showy revolutionary phraseology. He who wants the end must also want the means.[52]

For Gramsci, the means of struggle are in constant tension with the ends, which requires a shift of strategy to a more patient approach of the “war of position” when a revolutionary offensive is unfavorable. Yet the revolutionary party, if it is to be true to its vision, needs to be ready for the ruptures and breaks that can seemingly come out of nowhere, that bring forth unseen possibilities. The Party then, needed to map out a road ahead and take advantage of a revolutionary moment, for it may never come again.

Gramsci's dynamic understanding of the interrelation between means and ends was in line with his belief in the openness of history that characterized his whole conception of the world, in line with the best communists from Marx to Lenin. Since socialism would not fall into the hands of the proletariat with the morning sunrise, this opened the door to chance and the unknown with their unknown outcomes. For it was in these moments that revolutionary events when history could be burst asunder by the masses, when prepared by previous struggle, can take advantage of them. And if the masses are ready, they can fight against long odds for victory. As Gramsci proclaimed:

Events are the real dialectics of history. They transcend all arguments, all personal judgments, all vague and irresponsible wishes. Events, with the inexorable logic of their development, give the worker and peasant masses, who are conscious of their destiny, these lessons....And men always choose the chances of life, even if these are slight, even if they only offer a wretched and exhausted life. They fight for these slight chances, and their vitality is such and their passion so great that they break every obstacle and sweep away even the most awesome apparatus of power.[53]

And this has been a constant in the history of class struggle, in the October Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Vietnam War, and so many others. How many times have communists heard that the struggles they have been involved in are impossible? After all, it sounds noble and grand to want revolution and communism, but it is just unrealistic. We should instead set our horizons to what is realistic and abandon notions of great deeds and struggles.

Gramsci himself scoffed at the practitioners of “realistic” politics: "Too much" (therefore superficial and mechanical) political realism often leads to the assertion that a statesman should only work within the limits of "effective reality" ; that he should not interest himself in what "ought to be" but only in what "is". This would mean that he should not look farther than the end of his own nose”.[54]

For the camp of “political” realism, as Gramsci recognized was not about being aware of our limitations and the slight possibilities for revolution that exist in an unfavorable moment, but they were in fact abandoning communism. For political “realism”, whether couched in “left” or conservative rhetoric, accepts the view put forward by the enemy that there is no alternative and that we should accept no more than the tepid reforms given to us by our rulers. Political “realism” thus winds up, whether it admits it or not, waving a white flag of surrender.

Gramsci, by contrast, says that the open nature of revolutionary struggle has to be recognized. That means it is an illusion to expect a guaranteed outcome of victory, or that the transition to socialism without sacrifice. And more than that, to struggle means that while you can win, odds are that you are going to lose – something Gramsci knew too well after Italy's post-war revolutionary upsurge was defeated and fascism reigned triumphant. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, if one fights they risk being beaten, but one who doesn't fight has already lost. Gramsci discusses the choice as follows:

The communists are also of the opinion that when one engages in struggle it’s no use expecting victory to be guaranteed by a notary’s certificate.

Many times in history people have found themselves at a crossroads:

Or they can risk everything, including their lives – and throw themselves into an all-out battle.

Either they can choose to languish as they die slowly of starvation and exhaustion, littering their own streets with a few corpses each day – until as the weeks, months and years pass, a mountain of bodies accumulates.

They would then risk winning, halting the process of dissolution with a single blow – and beginning the work of reorganisation and development that will at least secure future generations a little more tranquility and well-being.

On such occasions it was the people who had faith in themselves and in their own destiny that were saved – those that faced the fight, audaciously.[55]

Yet Gramsci was far from being sentimental fool who advocated “fighting the good fight” in a lost cause. As we shall discuss later, Gramsci understood that politics was a zero-sum game and he was playing to win. Strategy, tactics, theory, cadre and organization were all dispensable to the victory of the revolution. One element we will touch on here is the need for a collective will. Gramsci argues that the “"will" (which in the last analysis equals practical or political activity) at the base of philosophy”.[56]

This means, if communists accept, in advance, that the enemy cannot be beaten, then they will never win. Will, determination, and a heroic vision are needed to win. Yet Gramsci hastens to add that the revolution is not something that can be achieved at any time or moment by a few determined people who will it into being. He wants to cultivate a “rational, not an arbitrary, will, which is realised in so far as it corresponds to objective historical necessities, or in so far as it is universal history itself in the moment of its progressive actualisation”.[57] Once it is accepted that will is necessary to change the world, it is important that this not be seen as synonymous with unthinking or reckless action. Rather, for communists to embrace the idea of a collective will, Gramsci argues, means to think seriously and strategically about what it will take to win.[58]

If communists develop a collective will through their parties and organizations, then this can shift the objective conditions in their favor. Take the example of a painting. A painting is envisioned in the mind of the painter. Yet the painting will not come to life of itself. It takes the act of creation and applying the paintbrush to the canvas to create it. And while the painter may not be able to see all the specific acts of the process of creating the image, unless they act then nothing is created at all. And the same is true of political struggle. The Bolsheviks planned the October Revolution in great detail, and the outcome desired by them depended a great deal on how far they were willing to act to ensure that it came about. Gramsci describes this as follows:

In reality one can foresee only the struggle, but not the concrete moments of the struggle, which can but be the results of opposing forces in continuous movement, which are never reduced to fixed quantities since within them quantity is continuously becoming quality. In reality one can 'foresee' to the extent that one acts, to the extent that one applies a voluntary effort and therefore contributes concretely to creating the result 'foreseen.' Prediction reveals itself thus not as a scientific act of knowledge, but as the abstract expression of the effort made, the practical way of creating a collective will.[59]

Yet this brings up several essential questions: What is the 'practical way' of creating a political will that can make a socialist revolution that gains leadership of the oppressed classes that will in turn challenge the dominance of the ruling classes? And how does the bourgeoisie maintain its rule over subordinate social classes? In order to answer these questions, we will have to turn to one of the main themes of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks: hegemony.

III. Hegemony

A. History of a concept

If Gramsci's name is associated with any word or phrase, it would have to be that of “hegemony”. This is one of the major themes developed throughout the Prison Notebooks. The term is widely used in diverse ways due to incomplete nature of Gramsci's work. It is a favorite term for academics who wouldn't be caught dead using any other Marxist concepts.

Hegemony has been used by many, including the postwar leadership of the Italian Communist Party, to justify a reformist practice that refused to contemplate a revolutionary challenge against the bourgeois state. In fact, there is no end to reformists, revisionists and social democrats throughout the world who use the term “hegemony” to cover their movement away from communist politics. Despite this, “hegemony” is a valuable concept in the communist arsenal that helps us to understand not only how the bourgeois rules, but also in developing revolutionary strategies to challenge its dominance.

While “hegemony” as both a word and a theoretical concept is linked with Gramsci, its usage predates him on both counts. It is necessary to make a slight digression here on the origins of hegemony in order to introduce terms and ideas in how Gramsci understands the role of a communist party and bourgeois rule.

Perry Anderson, editor of the New Left Review, and author of the seminal 1976 essay The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, says, “The term gegemoniya (hegemony) was one of the most central political slogans in the Russian Social-Democratic movement, from the late 1890s to 1917”.[60] In the 1880s, the Russian Marxist, Georg Plekhanov argued that the working class would need to assume leadership in the political struggle against tsarism. Plekhanov argued this with the vague term domination, but he also assumed that “the proletariat would support the bourgeoisie in a revolution in which the latter would necessarily emerge in the end as the leading class”.[61]

However, in the 1890s and later, the term hegemony began to be used more widely by Russian social democrats and took on a more distinct form to mean working class leadership of the entire anti-Tsarist movement. In fact, the slogan of “hegemony of the proletariat in the bourgeois revolution was thus a common political inheritance for Bolsheviks and Mensheviks alike at the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903”.[62]

Lenin also developed his own strategies on hegemony in What is to be Done? for the social democratic ideal to be one who is a “tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands”.[63]

Furthermore, Lenin in the Two Tactics on Social Democracy also formulated strategies for how the proletariat was to assume political leadership in the anti-Tsarist struggle. In fact, a key point of demarcation between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was that the former recognized the need for proletarian hegemony, not only in the socialist revolution, but even during the bourgeois revolution.

Lenin linked hegemony with a party representing and leading not just the workers, or a class party, but leading all of the oppressed and exploited in the struggle against capitalism and tsarism:

When you say: in the past there was hegemony, but in the future there ought to be a “class party”—you thereby glaringly show the connection between liquidationism and the renunciation of hegemony, and confirm the fact that this trend has broken with Marxism. Marxism maintains: since there was “hegemony” in the past, consequently, the sum of trades, specialties, guilds gave rise to the class; for it is the consciousness of the idea of hegemony and its implementation through their own activities that converts the guilds as a whole into a class. And once they have grown to the level of a “class”, no external conditions, no burdens, no reduction of the whole to a fraction, no rejoicing on the part of Vekhi, and no pusillanimity on the part of the opportunists, can stifle this young shoot. Even if it is not “seen” on the surface (the Potresovs do not see it, or pretend not to see it, because they do not care to see it), it is alive; it lives, preserving the “past” in the, present, and carrying it into the future. Because there was hegemony in the past, Marxists are in duty bound—despite all and sundry renunciators—to uphold its idea in the present and in the future; and this ideological task fully corresponds to the material conditions which have created the class out of guilds and which continue to create, extend and consolidate, it, and which lend strength to its resistance to all “manifestations of bourgeois influence".[64]

In other words, Lenin conceived of a revolutionary party that was broader than a narrow labor party, whether representing sections or the working class as a whole, but as representing all of the oppressed. And Lenin's conception of hegemony informed members of the newly formed Communist Parties, including Gramsci. Gramsci went so far as to declare Lenin's great theoretical achievement in Marxism to be that of developing hegemony: “From this, it follows that the theoretical-practical principle of hegemony has also epistemological significance, and it is here that Ilich [Lenin] 's greatest theoretical contribution to the philosophy of praxis should be sought”.[65]

Furthermore, Hegemony was discussed heavily in the debates of the Communist International, particularly in relation to forming united fronts and how the Communist Parties saw themselves as gaining leadership over the masses. Hegemony was seen as a way for the proletariat to agitate among social activity of all sectors of the population, not just workers. The Second Comintern congress declared:

The proletariat becomes a revolutionary class only in so far as it does not restrict itself to the framework of a narrow corporatism and acts in every manifestation and domain of social life as the guide of the whole working and exploited population… The industrial proletariat cannot absolve its world-historical mission, which is the emancipation of mankind from the yoke of capitalism and of war, if it limits itself to its own particular corporative interests and to efforts to improve its situation --sometimes a very satisfactory one -- within bourgeois society.[66]

As we shall discuss later, Gramsci saw the development proletariat away from fighting for its narrow corporate interests to that of hegemonic leadership as a necessary task to be undertaken by the communist party.

While the Bolsheviks were able to gain hegemony over the workers and peasants of Russia to lead a successful revolution, the Communist Parties of the west had run aground and bourgeois rule remained intact. Gramsci believed that the reasons for the failure of revolution in the west as opposed to the east was because of the nature of bourgeois rule in the former – and the differing nature of bourgeois rule justified a change in tactics towards the united front. Gramsci formulated the difference between east and west as follows:

In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks: more or less numerous from one State to the next, it goes without saying-but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country.[67]

By civil society, Gramsci is referring to the “ensemble of organisms that are commonly called private”[68] such as political parties, trade unions, media churches, schools and other voluntary associations. These organs of civil society are the vehicles through which the capitalist class fosters consent due to the “spontaneous" consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group ; this consent is "historically" caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production”.[69]

In other words, the bourgeoisie, being the ruling class who control the state and the means of production is able to disseminate its ideas and ideology throughout society (yet as we shall see this is not an uncontested struggle).

Civil society forms one layer of hegemony. The second consists of “'political society' or 'the state'“.[70] Both civil society and political society together establish “hegemony which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of "direct domination" or command exercised through the State and ''juridical'' government. The functions in question are precisely organisational and connective”.[71]

While Gramsci never denies that the state is ultimately based upon force (or coercion), stating the “apparatus of state coercive power which "legally" enforces discipline on those groups who do not "consent" either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed”.[72]

What Gramsci is saying is that bourgeois rule may ultimately be based on force, but it does not rely solely upon it. For the bourgeois to maintain its hegemony, it cannot always use the stick, but has to use the carrot as well. “The 'normal' exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterized by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent”.[73]

Naturally, given the horrible conditions under which Gramsci was writing and the incomplete nature of his work, have given rise to a number of conflicting interpretations of how Gramsci used hegemony. Perry Anderson believes that Gramsci was never able to produce a unitary theory of the relation between coercion and consent in bourgeois society, this meant he made various attempts to resolve the tension throughout the Prison Notebooks, which would have “necessarily have had to take the form of a direct and comprehensive survey of the intricate institutional patterns of bourgeois power, in either their parliamentary or their fascist variants -- an unwitting list gradually edged his texts towards the pole of consent, at the expense of that of coercion”.[74]

According to Anderson, Gramsci underestimated the role of the repressive apparatuses of the bourgeois state in the advanced capitalist countries compared to their ability to maintain ideological control. And Gramsci's unresolved ambiguous understand of hegemony led him to develop the deadlocked strategy of a war of position as the main avenue of communist advance that pushed a war of manometer (or insurrection) far into the background. While Anderson claims Gramsci was undoubtedly a revolutionary communist, he ended up repeating Karl Kautsky's ideas for a “war of attrition” and this explains the appeal of his theories for reformists and Eurocommunists.[75]

Anderson's interpretation of Gramsci has been influential since their publication in the 1970s. However, Peter Thomas argues in his recent book, The Gramscian Moment, has challenged Anderson's conclusions with more recent advances in scholarship. Thomas says that Gramsci did in fact have a consistent definition of hegemony when he introduced the idea of the “integral state” in 1930 which was “intended as a dialectical unity of the moments of civil society and political society”.[76] When looking at hegemony through the lense of the integral state, what

then, emerges as a new ‘consensual’ political practice distinct from mere coercion (a dominant means of previous ruling classes) on this new terrain of civil society; but, like civil society, integrally linked to the state, hegemony’s full meaning only becomes apparent when it is related to its dialectical distinction of coercion. Hegemony in civil society functions as the social basis of the dominant class’s political power in the state apparatus, which in turn reinforces its initiatives in civil society. The integral state, understood in this broader sense, is the process of the condensation and transformation of these class relations into institutional form.[77]

While coercion and consent remain separate with different functions, they operate as part of a single integrated whole. Thus Thomas' manages to show that Gramsci, far from possessing a confused and ambiguous theory of hegemony, actually based his ideas on existing Marxist theories of the state, and moreover, he expanded upon them.

B. The state

Most Marxist theories of the state, whether that of Marx, Engels or Lenin, emphasize the state as a coercive organ of class role. For Marx, the state is created to maintain social cohesion in a society divided into classes. The state is then used dominant classes to maintain their rule and protect their interests as opposed to the dominated classes. Or to put it differently, the state apparatus is alienated from society. Marx in one of his earlier works describes this as follows:

The state becomes something alien to the nature of civil society; it becomes this nature’s otherworldly realm of deputies which makes claims against civil society. The police, the judiciary, and the administration are not deputies of civil society itself, which manages its own general interest in and through them. Rather, they are office holders of the state whose purpose is to manage the state in opposition to civil society.[78]

However, the state being a creation of people, is alienated from its makers. The state is thus used against society. The danger of a separation of the organs of state power from control by society can be seen “with its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its wide-ranging and ingenious state machinery, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half million-this terrifying parasitic body which enmeshes the body of … society”.[79]

This separation and the need for the state to maintain the dominant property relations, protecting the cohesion of the system and suppressing any challenges to the ruling class results in the state “managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.[80]

Lenin in State and Revolution recovered the key works and lessons of Marx and Engels' writings on the state, identifying the state as “a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable”.[81]

For Lenin, the state is also a power that rose up from society, but appears to be above it and alienated more and more from its makers. The power of the state, according to Lenin “consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command”.[82] The bourgeois state, Lenin argues, cannot be taken over by the proletariat, but needs to be replaced by a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat on the model of the Paris Commune. And contrary to reformists who say otherwise, Lenin says that this cannot be done peacefully: “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution”.[83]

As we have mentioned, Gramsci never denies that the state ultimately rests upon armed force. However, he was perhaps the first Marxist theorist to emphasize the role that consent plays in allowing the bourgeois to maintain its hegemony. This is why Gramsci spends so much time discussing the role of ideology and culture in bourgeois society and how it is transmitted by the various organs of civil society. Bourgeois ideology is thus promoted and accepted by the masses consensually, so that their subordinate status is accepted and the over-all system is not put in question (capitalism thus becomes 'common sense' to people). As we shall see later, Gramsci does not believe that the dominant ideology reigns supreme, but rather it can be challenged and can be a site for revolutionary struggle.[84]

C. Historical bloc and hegemony

While Marx, Engels and Lenin never had a deterministic view of the relation of the base to the superstructure and the state (where it was only the base that influenced the superstructure), a great deal of inherited Marxism, whether in the Second or Third Internationals, did possess such an outlook. This vulgar Marxism viewed the state as strictly reflecting changes the economic base, but not the other way around. By contrast, Gramsci introduces the concept of the “historical bloc” to argue that the state, ideology and politics, as parts of the superstructure, are relatively autonomous from the base. The historical bloc is one of his most important ideas discussed throughout the Prison Notebooks. That said, the “historical bloc” is only discussed in detail in a few passages:

Concept of "historical bloc", i.e. unity between nature and spirit (structure and superstructure), unity of opposites and of distincts ...

Structures and superstructures form an "historical bloc". That is to say the complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the refection of the ensemble of the social relations of production. From this, one can conclude: that only a totalitarian system of ideologies gives a rational refection of the contradiction of the structure and represents the existence of the objective conditions for the revolutionising of praxis. If a social group is formed which is one hundred per cent homogeneous on the level of ideology , this means that the premises exist one hundred per cent for this revolutionising: that is that the "rational" is actively and actually real. This reasoning is based on the necessary reciprocity between structure and superstructure, a reciprocity which is nothing other than the real dialectical process.[85]

In the first passage, Gramsci seems to suggest a reformulation of Marx's metaphor of the base and superstructure (repeated throughout the Prison Notebooks). As Gramscian scholar Anne Showstack Sassoon argues, he uses the term historical bloc in two senses, one “against a Crocean idealist distortion of the Marxist dialectic on the one hand and an economistic deviation on the other. These two objects of Gramsci's criticism converge in their reduction of the dialectic to one or other fundamental aspects of reality, either the ethical-political or the economic”.[86]

If we follow Sassoon's reading, then Gramsci is suggesting that the historical bloc is when the “base” and the “superstructure” form a dynamic and contradictory whole with a shifting and dynamic relationship between them. Following this, Gramsci then says “that a popular conviction often has the same energy as a material force or something of the kind, which is extremely significant”.[87] In other words, ideology, culture and politics are themselves material forces that can actively intervene to influence the base.

However, Gramsci uses “historical bloc” in a second sense as part of developing a methodology to analyze a particular social formation and conjuncture. According to Sassoon,

here the historical bloc has to do with the way in which various classes and fractions of classes are related in a situation in which one mode of production is dominant but articulated with other modes of production. In addition, what must be emphasized is that the way in which a given historical bloc is articulated is organically related to the ability or not of a new, progressive class to construct an alternative historical bloc.[88]

A historical bloc here deals with the ways in which classes relate to one another to form different political alliances or blocs. Yet Sassoon goes on and says that the historical bloc “is not to be reduced to a mere political alliance since it assumes a complex construction within which there can be sub-blocs...”.[89]

We could take the example of how the Bush administration's historic bloc for the Iraq War (something we will further elaborate below) that contained different sub blocs: neoconservatives, the State Department, religious conservatives, the military-industrial complex, etc. Or the Orleanists, Bonapartists, and Bourbons in France during the mid-nineteenth century that represented different class forces such as the landed nobility, industrial capitalists and financial capitalists. Each one of these various sub-blocs have their own contours, contradictions and interests that can produce different political alliances. Yet despite the varying configurations possible between the various sub-blocs, “none the less maintain the general configuration of the fundamental historical bloc”.[90]

Thus, there are different governmental coalitions, negotiations, changes in strength of a bloc or shifts between different political parties (Republicans to Democrats and vice-versa) or even new blocs that can enter (such as social democratic parties entering European governments following WWII), but none of this changes the fundamental nature of a historical bloc. Yet Gramsci's concept of the historical bloc allows us to look at how a political bloc maintains its dominance in different ways that may not reflect its economic dominance.[91]

The historical bloc is always in flux as the different forces that make it up are vying for dominance and other forces that are excluded seek to participate (ex. socialist parties in Europe before WWI). The historical bloc, then, “represents the dominance of one class which 'leads' its allies, and is dominant over its enemies”.[92] A particular historical bloc is established by a certain relation of forces and with the consent granted to it by the subaltern classes. A ruling power bloc in the end, organizes its own dominance and disorganizes the dominated classes.[93]


Needless to say, a dominated class (ex. The proletariat) strives to construct its own historical bloc and to win over social forces to its side in order to shatter the current historical bloc.
We can see here that there is an overlap between the political party, the historical bloc and hegemony. As Sassoon argues: “the historical bloc in implying necessarily the existence of hegemony also implies that in order to create a new historical bloc alternative to the existing one, the new, progressive class must create its own hegemonic apparatuses. The way in which the working class is able to do this, according to Gramsci, is through the party”.[94] However, that is an idea we will discuss later. For now, let us see how the bourgeois creates its own historical bloc to maintain its hegemony.

If capitalism is to exist and reproduce, then it needs a state which not only suppresses the working class, maintains social cohesion, and protects private property, but acts in the interests of the bourgeois as a whole. And this means that the state cannot be subjected to the momentary whims of one section of the bourgeois or to fluctuations in the economic base, rather the long term interests of the bourgeois need to be safeguarded. For example, if a particular section of capitalists, such as Richard Nixon and the Republicans go after another section like the Democrats by wiretapping Watergate, this is going too far and needs to be kept in check. Yet when Nixon and the same capitalist class used these and far worse methods of COINTELPRO on the Black Panthers and the US Socialist Workers' Party, there was no outcry.

The reason is simple: an attack on the left does not endanger the ruling class in the same way as an attack by one section of the capitalists on another. The former is a normal instance of “acceptable” violence while the latter threatens to not only split the ruling class against itself, but can cause the “voluntary consent” of the masses of accepting their rulers to slip away.
Furthermore, under capitalism, as opposed to feudalism, there is a separation between the “political” and the “economic”. In a feudal system, the state is directly involved in all aspects of societal life. For instance, surplus is extracted from the serfs directly by the feudal lords. And if the serf refuses to pay their due to the lord, this is met with swift and brutal force. By contrast, the situation is different under capitalism.

For example, if a worker is fired from a private company, it is not the state that directly causes them to lose their job (there is a level of indirectness and mediation involved). And the unemployed worker can also go to the state and apply for some form of employment relief or even take their employer to court for monetary compensation or to be reinstated. And while it is unlikely that the worker will win against their employer in court, the small chance or the illusion of it being possible may convince a worker to place faith in the system and its “impartiality” as a neutral arbitrator standing above classes. The laws and avenues of redress available for workers to gain redress therefore help to provide ideological legitimacy and consent for the overall system.

This sense of “legitimacy” and “fair play” of the bourgeois state is in turn trumpeted not only by the representatives of the state, but through the organs of civil society such as cable news, churches, newspapers, etc. as well. Those who claim otherwise, that there is class struggle and the state serves the rulers, are portrayed divisive and condemned for preaching “class warfare”.
Let us now discuss the example of the state's supposed neutrality and serving the “national interest” played out during the Iraq War in 2003. In this instance, we have a case of Gramsci's ideas of hegemony and the integral state at work.

The ruling class of the United States, who led the charge to war, was determined to invade Iraq in order to establish control of its oil and other raw materials, assert their power in the face of any potential state rivals, establish new markets, and eliminate any independent form of national development. There were also ideological reasons for war as promoted by the neo-conservatives: “war on terror”, “clash of civilizations”, “defending America” and spreading “freedom” all of which overlapped to a certain extent with more directly “economic” motives, but were also distinct from them. And the Iraq War was also promoted most heavily by one section of the ruling class, notably those associated with the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Yet the neo-conservatives, in order to gain support for the war had to form a bloc with other sections of the ruling class who each had their own particular interests in order to gain legitimacy for the war. In order to build consensus for war, the neoconservatives also worked with “realists” within the Republican and Democrat Parties and the State Department, such as Colin Powell, who did not want unilateral action, but wanted a multi-lateral “coalition of the willing” by involving other imperialist and subordinate states supported by United Nations. And of course, support for the war was elicited from sections of the capitalist class involved in arms manufacturing (notably Halliburton) and other companies who stood to make enormous profits from lucrative war time contracts such as Blackwater (which in fact happened).

However, the consent needed for the Iraq war could not just involve establishing a bloc amongst various sections of the ruling class, but needed the active and or passive consent of other classes as well. And this was done not solely by members of the state apparatus who argued that it was necessary for war in order to “enforce UN resolutions” and “to find WMDs”. The message of war was spread, filtered and mediated in various ways through the institutions of civil society that we have already outlined. To take one example, Fox News was second-to-none in the justifying the war with hype, fear and blatant lies such as linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and Al Qaeda, the threat to the Homeland, and how we all needed to stand behind the flag and “support the troops”. And support for the war could be seen among ordinary people who called in to radio stations to stop them from playing the band Dixie Chicks after they complained about the war. A symbol of consent for war could be seen in an act so simple and passive as placing an American flag decal on a car or tying a yellow ribbon on a tree.

Yet we know that ideology and hegemony is always a contested and never established once and for all. Support for the Iraq War was not total. This was shown in different and contradictory ways by groups such as isolationist or racist libertarians and Republicans who don't want to intervene to “solve the problems of ragheads”, or by Democrats who didn't believe that the war “served the national interest”, or pacifists and those who opposed the war based on anti-imperialism. Aside from the last example, opposition to the war was often articulated within the framework of the dominant ideology with such phrases as “peace is patriotic” and the “dissent” could even be held up by pro-war supporters as showing how freedom of dissent and speech was tolerated in the United States as opposed to dictatorial Iraq.

So even here, the bounds of anti-war opposition remained within the basic fabric of the dominant ideology (anti-imperialist views could only be rarely found in the media). Despite the consent, both active and passive, that the ruling class gained to carry out the Iraq war, they ultimately relied upon force or the threat of force to protect itself should any upheaval from below manifest itself. At any anti-war demonstration, there were armed police and other agents of the state who were ready to arrest protesters. And the ruling class, through various local, state and federal institutions spied on the anti-war movement. Even though the capitalist class managed to build a rather broad form of consensus for the Iraq War, force was never out of sight. As Gramsci might have said, the USA's iron fist was covered with a red, white, and blue velvet glove.

The example of the Iraq Wars shows how the bourgeois maintains hegemony by creating a historical bloc. The ruling class, if it is hold onto hegemony cannot rule or carry out policy on its own. One faction of the capitalist class needs to form alliances and make compromises with other factions of the capitalist class and take account of the interests of subordinate groups. As Gramsci says, “Undoubtedly the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed-in other words, that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind”.[95]

By economic-corporate, this means that the ruling class cannot just look at its own sectional or particular interests, but needs to have a wider conception of politics. Yet if a class faction is able to build an alliance with other class factions and classes, articulate this with a clear ideology then it is able to form a hegemonic bloc to provide “moral and intellectual” leadership. Even though the ruling class needs to make alliances and make concessions, these alliances cannot ever touch the base of its power: control of the means of production and the state. This is something that Gramsci is at pains to emphasize: “But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential; for though hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity”.[96]

To give another example, following World War II, the ruling classes of Western Europe made various compromises with the social democratic left and the trade unions to create welfare states, a social safety net and highly regulated capitalism which gained consent from the working classes. Yet these compromises never really threatened the base of capitalist power or control. And those forces who could not be controlled, bought off or integrated, such as the radical left were marginalized. The creation of the modern welfare state is an example of the far-sighted nature of the ruling class needed to exercise hegemony: “A class is dominant in two ways, that is, it is 'leading' and 'dominant.' It leads the allied classes, and dominates over the adversarial classes”.[97]

Gramsci, in elaborating hegemony, ultimately looked beyond simplistic formulas for how the bourgeois in the advanced capitalist countries was able to maintain its rule. And while he never denied that the ruling class ultimately relied upon force, he developed an understanding of how capitalism was able to foster consent from the masses through civil society. Coercion and consent have different roles and methods, but they operate in a dialectical unity as part of an integral state: “the State is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules”.[98] Gramsci's conception of the state is thus a deepening and an enrichment of previous Marxist theories of the state.

Gramsci's explanations of the differences between bourgeois rule in the west as opposed to the east, thus means that different strategies by revolutionaries are needed to challenge and topple that rule. And because bourgeois rule in the west is more entrenched in civil society than in Russia, they will not necessarily face collapse with the onset of crisis – they will struggle to maintain their rule and build new alliances. Before discussing how the bourgeoisie faces a crisis, we will now turn to Gramsci's ideas on how communists need shift strategy to a war of position and to understand the nature of the conjuncture.

IV. The war of position and the conjuncture

Let us begin by returning to Gramsci's contrast between East and West. While the Russian Revolution had succeeded, the various postwar revolutionary upsurges in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Spain and elsewhere had failed.

As we recall, Gramsci argued that the civil society of western capitalism was much stronger and more resilient than what existed in Russia. When communists in the west launched revolutionary offensives, they ran aground since bourgeois civil society remained intact. Gramsci described civil society similarly to the trench-systems of the First World War that despite repeated bombardment remained intact:

The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare. In war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack seemed tohave destroyed the enemy's entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter ; and at the moment of their advance and attack the assailants would find themselvesconfronted by a line of defence which was still effective.[99]

Therefore with the bourgeoisie firmly in control of civil society, this meant their defenses were not weakened and revolutionary offensives were bound to fail.

Gramsci took aim at those who argued for repeated revolutionary offensives, after the time for their success had passed. In a critique of Trotsky, Gramsci said he was a political theorist of frontal attack in a period in which they only led to defeats.[100] In contrast, Gramsci praised Lenin, who “understood that a change was necessary from the war of manoeuvre applied victoriously in the East in 1917, to a war of position which was the only form possible in the West where...armies could rapidly accumulateendless quantities of munitions, and where the social structures were of themselves s till capable of becoming heavily-armed fortifications”.[101] Gramsci saw the struggle by communists to build a united front as analogous to that of a war of position. In light of the strength of the bourgeois hegemony in the west, Gramsci argues that the change of tactics advocated by the Comintern was necessary since The truth is that one cannot choose the form of war one wants, unless from the start one has a crushing superiority over the enemy”.[102]

For Gramsci, a war of position is likened to a prolonged siege or trench warfare supported by massive reserves which makes a frontal assault impossible. A war of maneuver by contrast is characterized by forward movement, frontal attacks, and rapid strikes.[103] To Gramsci, a war of position is needed in advanced capitalist societies because there, the state possesses immense political and ideological resources in contrast to a strong state and weak civil society found in Russia. Therefore, the conditions that made the Russian Revolution possible do not apply in Western Europe.

While Gramsci's formulation for a war of position has been used by revisionists and Eurocommunists to advocate non-revolutionary or reformist strategies, this goes against the grain of Gramsci's thought. These forces renounced revolution and made the war of position into a permanent strategy of seeking to reform the state from within and effectively accepted capitalism as the only horizon. To Gramsci, a war of position was the period in which hegemony was developed by the working class and its allies through ideological, political and cultural struggle.

For Gramsci, a war of position is conceived of as the prelude to a war of maneuver, during which the working class not only gathers its forces and wins people from other oppressed classes to its vision of a new society. As he elaborates, the role of the Modern Prince or the Communist Party is to act as “the proclaimer and organiser of an intellectual and moral reform, which also means creating the terrain for a subsequent development of the national-popular collective will towards the realisation of a superior, total form of modern civilisation”.[104] Without communists being able to gain moral, intellectual, and political leadership over the oppressed masses before launching a war of maneuver, they can never succeed.

Ultimately, for Gramsci, the war of position or the building up of communist hegemony is light-years apart from the reformist or Eurocommunist conception of a war of position. To the revisionists, the war of position is merely justify up their non-revolutionary strategy of becoming the “loyal opposition” of the bourgeoisie by appropriating the language of the communist Gramsci. For Gramsci, a war of position is how communists fight differently from the ruling class before they can undertake a war of maneuver. Gramsci warns, “Another point to be kept in mind is that in political struggle one should not ape the methods of the ruling classes, or one will fall into easy ambushes”.[105]

Gramsci conceived of people as eager to hear and be inspired by the message of communist revolution, that was an inspiring vision that will be heeded because it is needed. During the war of position, communists would draw more people into the movement and expand their circles of action to not only attack every manifestation of capitalist exploitation, but creating an inspiring ideal of a new order. 

Gramsci understood that while a war of position did not involve the same sacrifices as a war of movement, it has its own costs: “one passes over to siege warfare; this is concentrated, difficult, and requires exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness. In politics, the siege is a reciprocal one, despite all appearances, and the mere fact that the ruler has to muster all his resources demonstrates how seriously he takes his adversary”.[106] Thus while a prolonged war of position may cause the bourgeois to lose hegemony and to weaken, there is a dialectic at work as well. For just as the enemy is worn down by a siege, the besiegers are also weakened.

Many of the forces which could (arguably) claim to waging a war of position, such as the Italian Communist Party after WWII never conceived of going past it. They remained committed to parliamentary politics, building a counter-hegemony and consensus. Instead of working to overcome the system, the PCI was absorbed by it and used by the bourgeois to help maintain its own hegemony. Ultimately, they never contemplated shifting to a war of maneuver (if they had ever believed that was possible), so that when cracks and revolutionary openings appeared in the late 1960s, it was forces to their left (such as Autonomia) who sought to capitalize on it. The most the PCI could do, aside from acting as a loyal opposition and strikebreakers in regards to the mass movement, was to formalize in theory and program their already reformist practice by adopting first the “Historical Compromise” and “Eurocommunism”.

The example of the PCI could easily be extended to any number of social democratic and communist parties, who far from waging a war of position, were “worn down” and absorbed by the system, reinforcing the hegemony of the bourgeoisie and wound up themselves implementing capitalist policies. If revolutionary movements ever came, these parties were more likely to be on the other side of the barricades, whether by channeling radical energies back into the state at best or organizing their suppression at worst. As we shall discuss below, Gramsci envisions a much different political party than the SP and CPs, one that is not worn down by the siege, but continues to uphold its principles by developing a hegemonic alliance, and is willing to move over to a war of maneuver when a revolutionary opening comes.

Gramsci also criticized other theories of the offensive such as Rosa Luxemburg's advocacy of the mass strike. He said Luxemburg's work on the mass strike “rather superficially too-theorised the historical experiences of 1905 . She in fact disregarded the "voluntary" and organisational elements which were far more extensive and important in those events than-thanks to a certain "economistic" and spontaneist prejudice-she tended to believe”.[107] Luxemburg is accused of holding a deterministic view whereby “the immediate economic element (crises, etc.) is seen as the field artillery which in war opens a breach in the enemy's defences -- a breach sufficient for one's own troops to rush in and obtain a definitive (strategic) victory, or at least an important victory in the context of the strategic line....It was thus out and out historical mysticism, the awaiting of a sort of miraculous illumination”.[108] In contrast to the reliance of spontaneity found in the mass strike, Gramsci's argued for a dialectical view of the relation between crisis and radical political action.

Gramsci rejects any one-to-one relation between a crisis and the possibilities for radicalization and a revolutionary offensive. For instance, it is often thought by leftists that when an economic crisis comes (such as the Great Depression of 1929), this merely proves that the 'final crisis of capitalism' is at hand (one can just look at the rhetoric of the German Communist Party following the economic crash of 1929). And it is further assumed that an economic crisis will automatically produce class struggles (or even revolutions). Yet there is no simple one-to-one relation between economic crisis and the development of class or revolutionary consciousness. Following the German example of 1929, the Depression certainly led to the growth of the Communist Party, but even more so to the Nazis.

Nor does a crisis necessarily mean that the state has lost all room for maneuver. For one, the state and the ruling class is much better organized than the forces of the revolutionary left and able to adapt more quickly to a crisis (ex. reshaping class alliances, restoring profitability, and their narrative of events naturally has a lot wider reach), which is something we shall discuss below. As Gramsci argues:

The crisis creates situations which are dangerous in the short run, since the various strata of the population are not all capable of orienting themselves equally swiftly, or of reorganizing with the same rhythm. The traditional ruling class, which has numerous trained cadres, changes men and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. Perhaps it may make sacrifices, and expose itself to an uncertain future by demagogic promises ; but it retains power, reinforces it for the time being, and uses it to crush its adversary and disperse his leading cadres, who cannot be very numerous or highly trained.[109]

And during the period of the Great Depression (and other crises), capital developed their own strategies to isolate opponents, winning over people and restore profitability.[110] In the 1930s, the strategies employed by capital to manage the crisis ranged from the New Deal to Fascism with their unique mixtures of coercion, consent, demagoguery and co-option. It is often the case that left-wing forces are disoriented by a crisis and unable to adapt themselves to the emerging situation and the possibilities which it offers, but remain bound by outmoded formulas and strategy.

So what does this tell us? For one, that economic crises are opportunities for capital to rebuild their own hegemony, restructure and discipline labor in the interests of profit. Some of these efforts used by capital to restore its hegemony without fundamentally altering the underlying social structure, such as fascism, are what Gramsci calls, passive revolutions: “ideological hypothesis could be presented in the following terms: that there is a passive revolution in the fact that -- through the legislative intervention of the State, and by means of the corporative organisation -- relatively far-reaching modifications are being introduced into the country's economic structure in order to accentuate the "plan of production" element; in other words, that socialisation and co-operation in the sphere of production are being increased, without however touching (or at least not going beyond the regulation and control of) individual and group appropriation of profit”.[111] In other words, capital is generally able to find a way out of the crisis.

Yet economic crises also produce a response among the oppressed, albeit delayed. When crises come, they develop in new and unexpected ways as their contradictions are condensed and dispersed, rupturing in surprising ways. For example, the 2008 crisis produced the Occupy Movement, was not concentrated in the immigrant masses, but possessed a base among students. And the Occupy movement came into struggle with all sorts of prejudices and backward ideas, along with advanced ones. And certainly for many of its adherents, experience in the Occupy Movement and its confrontation with the unwillingness and inability of the state to meet its demands had a radicalizing effect among the participants.[112]

While a crisis does not automatically produce revolution or a change in consciousness, it does change the terrain of struggle. As Gramsci says, “It may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historical events; they can simply create a terrain more favorable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life”.[113] This means that the crisis, in comparison to “normal times” provides an opening for communists to explain their ideas to a more receptive audience, but they cannot expect a revolution to spontaneously emerge. Rather, communists need to be actively involved in struggle- organizing and open to the possibilities of the conjuncture which he identifies as follows:

A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity) and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts ... form the terrain of the “conjunctural” and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organise.[114]

Yet the passive fatalism of expecting some kind of one-to-one relation of crisis to the revolutionary consciousness continually inhibits strategic thinking. If communists are only expecting things to just develop in the desired direction automatically, Gramsci condemns them for not taking an active role in the class struggle and neglecting the development of strategy. The key role of a Marxist analysis and strategy is not only to understand the role of the class struggle and the inner laws of motion of capital, but to develop the means, organizations and strategies necessary to challenge and topple the rule of capital. As the French Marxist theorist Daniel Bensaid, echoing Gramsci, declared, "Crisis thus appears as the moment of rupture at which theory can be transformed into a strategic art”.[115]

And in navigating this possibilities of the conjuncture, communists such as Lenin and Gramsci were aware, according to Daniel Bensaid that in “strategy, time is the exact opposite of a uniform, homogeneous and empty dimension. It is made of clashes, sudden changes and moments to be seized”.[116] History moves in spirals, zig-zags and waves. In the rapids of history there are moments that appear that can potentially unravel the Gordian Knots of society's contradictions when the masses come onto the stage, opening us to new opportunities and challenges to be seized.

For Gramsci, this means knowing the relation of forces among the enemy, the cracks in the system, the nature of societal contradictions, the openings available in a particular moment where political action must be applied. Yet moving in a conjuncture and relating theory to practice will always be marked by friction. And in navigating the conjuncture means not only utilizing of military science and revolutionary theory, but also involves politics: building hegemony, seizing opportunities, daring, and building a Modern Prince so that communists can navigate a war of position and be strong enough to win a war of movement.

V. The Modern Prince

a. The party

It is now necessary to elaborate what Gramsci calls the “Modern Prince” which is his term for the Communist Party. According to Gramsci, the Modern Prince would fulfill a similar function to Machiavelli's Prince (who's work he explicitly drew upon) in a conjuncture by acting as “the proclaimer and organiser of an intellectual and moral reform, which also means creating the terrain for a subsequent development of the national-popular collective will towards the realisation of a superior, total form of modern civilisation”.[117]

Unless the Modern Prince is able to gain moral, intellectual, and political leadership over the oppressed masses before launching a war of maneuver, then they will fail. So what then is expected of a Modern Prince?

Gramsci believes that a communist party needs to capable of investigating reality through the methods of Marxism (something we will elaborate upon later) in order to determine not just the relations of force between social classes and different political blocs, but “to discover whether in a particular society there exist the necessary and sufficient conditions for its transformation...”.[118]

In order to understand the possibilities for social transformation, Gramsci believes that it is necessary to analyze the three stages that occur in the development of political forces or to make “in other words, an evaluation of the degree of homogeneity, self-awareness, and organisation attained by the various social classes”.[119]

The first stage Gramsci discusses is that of the “economic-corporate” which he defines as the collective interests of a particular group such as merchants, lawyers, or skilled workers. Members of an economic-corporate group organize to defend their particular interests, but they don't see the need for an organization encompassing other members of their class. This is followed by the second-level where “consciousness is reached of the solidarity of interests among all the members of a social class-but still in the purely economic field”.[120]

This can be seen in the development of trade unions and social democratic parties at the end of the 19th century which claimed to represent the interests of the working class. With the second-level, the class has to deal with the state – gaining equality (suffrage), winning parliamentary seats and to pass reforms, but “within the existing fundamental structures”.[121]

However, it is the third level that is the most relevant for our purposes. Here, the class transcends “the corporate limits of the purely economic class, and can and must become the interests of other subordinate groups too”.[122] Gramsci calls this a moment of 'catharsis' when a new counter-hegemony or revolutionary force is formed:

The term "catharsis" can be employed to indicate the passage from the purely economic (or egoistic-passional) to the ethicopolitical moment, that is the superior elaboration of the structure into superstructure in the minds of men. This also means the passage from "objective to subjective" and from "necessity to freedom". Structure ceases to be an external force which crushes man, assimilates him to itself and makes him passive; and is transformed into a means of freedom, an instrument to create a new ethicopolitical form and a source of new initiatives. To establish the "cathartic" moment becomes therefore, it seems to me, the starting-point for all the philosophy of praxis, and the cathartic process coincides with the chain of syntheses which have resulted from the evolution of the dialectic.[123]

It is here that the importance of the Party becomes paramount. At this level, the Communist Party must establish hegemony by leading not only the proletariat, but also allied and subordinate classes. Gramsci says in his work on the Southern Question that the proletariat “can become the leading and dominant class to the extent it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state”.[124]

Before his imprisonment, Gramsci was determined to combat the narrow-minded economism of Italian workers that caused them to look upon disdain and prejudice on peasants in the south. This means that the working class cannot limit revolutionary struggle to its own particular interests (although that was necessary), but had to win the trust and allegiance of other subordinate classes. This lesson of Gramsci – that it is vital for the proletariat to become the leading force in a revolutionary alliance of the oppressed and exploited has been proven time and time again by the experience of revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia and beyond.

Furthermore, Gramsci's championing for the necessity of workers and communists to take up the struggles of all those afflicted by oppression in the manner of Lenin's “tribune of the people” was what distinguished communist leadership. Rather, those Marxists see solely to the fight of workers (often narrowly defined to straight men), while saying that other struggles are “divisive” such as national oppression, sexism, racism, etc. not only cannot understand how to develop a strategy of liberation, but they are not even revolutionaries (whatever words they offer to the contrary).[125] And as part of the third level, Gramsci also identifies the military and the politico-military (the war of movement or the revolution). Of the two, Gramsci understand that the politico-military needs to be in charge. Or as Mao would have said, it is necessary to put “politics in command” and for “the party to command the gun”.

Passing through all these stages, Gramsci reminds us, is necessary for a subordinate class to establish its hegemony (and there is a dialectical mediation between all the stages). And as we discussed, it is not economic events by themselves that will automatically bring about socialism: “rupture of the equilibrium of forces did not occur as the result of direct mechanical causes”, but rather by conscious political intervention.[126] Gramsci considered such deterministic views of the relation between economic crisis and political action, a heritage of the Second International, to be detrimental to development of revolutionary politics.

According to Gramsci, economism (or theoretical syndicalism) claims to express the political independence and the interests of the working class. In fact, economism denies that workers can become conscious of their exploitation and fight to change it, believing that workers are only concerned with “bread and butter issues” that immediately affect them. Furthermore, a Marxist theory burdened by economism reduces it to determinism and teleology where “many people find it very convenient to think that they can have the whole of history and all political and philosophical wisdom in their pockets at little cost and no trouble, concentrated into a few short formulae”.[127]

Marxism is made not only lifeless and dry, but teological: “real will takes on the garments of an act of faith in a certain rationality of history and in a primitive and empirical form of impassioned finalism which appears in the role of a substitute for the Predestination or Providence of confessional religions”[128] Economism in claiming to speak for the working class, in fact subordinates it politically to the bourgeois through the gloss of Marxist theory. Economism denies that workers can become conscious of their exploitation and fight to change it.
As opposed to economism, Gramsci says that the creation of counter-hegemony requires “appropriate political initiative [which] is always necessary to free economic drive from the tethers of traditional policies”.[129]

In other words, to secure hegemony, conscious working class political intervention guided by socialist theory is necessary. And the instrument of this is the Modern Prince or the Communist Party. As Gramsci emphasizes, "The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organized and long-prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favorable (and it can be favorable only in so far as such a force exists, and is full of fighting spirit). Therefore the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact and self-aware”.[130]

So without the development of a revolutionary political party acting as a tribune the people, active in all areas of social and cultural life, as an educator, leader and the bearer of a new order then there can be no successful socialist revolution. And from Russia to Cuba, history has proven Gramsci right on that score time and time again. By contrast, theories of “changing the world without taking power” or horizontal organizing have proven to be miserable dead ends.
The Communist Party that Gramsci envisioned was not like the current-day sects that claim the mantle of a vanguard party.

These sects don't train their cadre to think or develop organic intellectuals from among the working class. Rather, they present Marxism as rote and dogma. And while it is important to have discipline and a clear chain of command to exist in a revolutionary party, if its members cannot think for themselves or apply in Marxism both theory and practice, then it remains lifeless and ineffective. Too many sects value obedience and the ability to parrot off the “correct verdicts” of history from manuals that have already done the necessary thinking. Gramsci, as we will see, had a much different method in theoretical and political training for cadre.

To Gramsci, the Communist Party needed to propagate and popularize its vision of communism to achieve hegemony in a war for position that creates a new historical bloc where a new world becomes the “common sense” of the masses:

We must promote the organic constitution of a Communist party which is not a collection of doctrinaires or little Machiavellis, but a party of Communist revolutionary action, a party with a precise consciousness of the historical mission of the proletariat and the ability to guide the proletariat in the realization of that mission -- hence, a party of the masses who want to free themselves from political and industrial slavery autonomously, by their own efforts, through the organization of the social economy ...[131]

What did Gramsci believe a Communist Party needed to do in order to train its members and the masses to construct a new historical bloc and achieve hegemony?

b. Intellectuals

Before answering the above question, it is necessary to take a step back and discuss Gramsci's understanding of intellectuals. Intellectuals play a key role for the ruling class in establishing its hegemony by propagating ideology, culture, and morality. As he says, “intellectuals which give [the ruling class] homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields”.[132]

These intellectuals are not necessarily from the same background as the ruling class, but they do depend on them for support. Intellectuals in bourgeois society (although Gramsci recognizes they exist in other social systems as well), serve as deputies for the ruling class with different functions. Their functions can range from managers, technicians, teachers, priests, journalists, etc. And Gramsci believed that it was necessary for any ruling class needed to have leaders and intellectuals who possess a “higher level of social elaboration, already characterised by a certain directive and technical (i.e. intellectual) capacity: he must have a certain technical capacity, not only in the limited sphere of his activity and initiative but in other spheres as well, at least in those which are closest to economic production”,[133]

Furthermore, intellectuals also serve the important role as intermediaries who can carry out the directives of the ruling class and also propagate the dominant ideology to ensure ideological hegemony.

Gramsci divides intellectuals into two groups – first are the traditional intellectuals who are tied to previous social formations and decaying classes “which seemed indeed to represent a historical continuity uninterrupted even by the most complicated and radical changes in political and social forms”,[134] but who may also attach themselves to another (rising) class. And depending on their class allegiance, traditional intellectuals can play a conservative or a revolutionary role. Gramsci identified traditional intellectuals in the Italian south as priests who were tied to landlords, provincial in their outlook, opposed socialism and any attack on the traditional order and served as the intermediary between the state and the peasantry, thus reinforcing the hegemony of the bourgeoisie.

The second group Gramsci identified as the organic intellectuals. Organic intellectuals emerge out of the ruling group itself. An example of bourgeois organic intellectuals were the philosophers of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. These intellectuals propagated and developed the worldview of the bourgeoisie which was disseminated to other members of the class, including lawyers such as Robespierre, and these ideas were also spread by popular orators to masses. These organic intellectuals, especially in the Jacobin Club, who provided the leading hegemonic bloc of the French Revolution. The proletarian and revolutionary movements have also developed their own organic intellectuals including Gramsci himself, James Connolly, and Eugene Debs (the latter two working class political leaders).

Unlike the bourgeoisie who possess economic power before gaining political power, who have time to train administrators, specialized workers and technicians, the proletariat has no such luxury. After the conquest of power, as part of achieving hegemony, the working class will need to win over traditional intellectuals, technicians, and administrators to run the state.

In the Soviet Union, Lenin made use of the old managers to help resume production after the revolution and Trotsky used old Tsarist military officers to run the Red Army (all of this entailed compromise and struggle to win them over to communism). Even though the problems of administering a revolutionary state were different than those of taking power (even if both involved establishing hegemony), Gramsci believed that the proletariat could develop its own organic intellectuals before taking power.

For Gramsci it was necessary to develop a party composed of organic intellectuals who would serve as the leaders of the proletariat and the party. Gramsci began with the basic rule of politics that “In the formation of leaders, one premise is fundamental: is it the intention that there should always be rulers and ruled, or is the objective to create the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary?

In other words, is the initial premise the perpetual division of the human race, or the belief that this division is only an historical fact, corresponding to certain conditions?”[135] If the goal of the communist party is to end class society, it needs to start out understanding the world as it exists with rulers and ruled. And that basic division (in whatever form) will be reflected within the communist party if it is serious about changing the world.

Some form of vertical chain of command is absolutely indispensable to political organization. Yet, the need for vertical organization is also balanced by efforts to narrow the gap between the leaders and the led. And this is done through training a wide stratum of organic intellectuals within and outside the party in critical thinking, Marxism and struggle who can develop on their own as leaders of the working class. And these organic intellectuals, trained in and around the Communist Party and through the course of struggle can, through their discipline and organization, create the future conditions for an end to class society.

The organic intellectuals of the working class, like those of the capitalists, will need to embrace all aspects of political, economic, ideological cultural and social life if they are to make a revolution and sustain it. Take the example of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s – they trained union organizers, popular writers, speakers, artists, historians, singers, lawyers and actors. The CP's organic intellectuals not only helped to maintain the party as a cohesive and disciplined organization that working in a myriad of mass movements, but also extended the party's reach far beyond its ranks.

Another example would be that of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in the 1930s and 1940s. The CCP not only had political cadre and underground union organizers, but also military commanders, cultural workers and governmental administrators for the liberated zones in Yenan. This experience of administering and managing an economy and liberated zones before taking power greatly assisted the Communist Party's transition to become a ruling governmental party with its own developed cadre who were establish a new state (although it still had to win over traditional intellectuals).

By contrast, the Bolsheviks did not possess many cadre who were trained as administers, military leaders, diplomats, or state officials before taking power which meant they had make a number of compromises in order to maintain hegemony. Any new class that comes to power will have to make use of the material left behind by the old society (including its intellectuals) to create a functioning new order. Reliance on traditional intellectuals (and social groups) can create problems for a new state since they may resist the rule of a new class and its efforts to revolutionize society (just take the example of tsarist officers and bureaucrats used to create the Red Army and manage the Soviet state).

The only way to lessen dependence on traditional intellectuals, according to Gramsci, is for the working class to develop its own organic intellectuals:

One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer "ideologically" the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.[136]

Closely related is the imperative for organic intellectuals who emerge from the working class to popularize a revolutionary ideology among the masses and to raise their intellectual level and to combat the “common sense” of bourgeois ideology. There is no pure philosophy or ideology, but rather “Various philosophies or conceptions of the world exist, and one always makes a choice between them”.[137] And these various philosophies are often absorbed by ordinary people in fragmentary and contradictory ways.

For example, think of the worker who supports union rights for all, but is opposed to immigrants and supports the Republican Party in order to protect family values. A poor person may believe that their poverty is actually their fault because they are a sinner or lazy. These disconnected and opposed ideas contribute to people refusing to question or challenge their oppression or capitalism, but accept them as natural. After all, to them, the current society and its values is just “common sense”. Gramsci defines common sense as “a conception which even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is”.[138]

It is important to note that common sense is not necessarily a coherent or rational view of the world. Common sense can accept all kinds of myths as “normal” and “accepted truths” such as blacks are lazy, America is the greatest nation in the world, evolution is false because “the Bible says so”, our leaders are looking out for us, etc. And these conceptions of the world are mixed in with other elements as well, some of which may be progressive or contain small seeds of socialist or communist consciousness.

Due to how ingrained bourgeois hegemony and “common sense” is amongst the people, it cannot always be combated with rational ideas or a better argument. For the most articulate agitator and rigorous debater will face those who just refuse to believe otherwise, despite all the evidence to the contrary, because they accept the world as it is based on what is natural and live their philosophy as a “faith”. The faith-based side of “common sense” was explained by Gramsci in a lengthy passage that is worth quoting at length:

The most important element is undoubtedly one whose character is determined not by reason but by faith. But faith in whom, or in what? In particular in the social group to which he belongs, in so far as in a diffuse way it thinks as he does. The man of the people thinks that so many like-thinking people can't be wrong, not so radically, as the man he is arguing against would like him to believe; he thinks that, while he himself, admittedly, is not able to uphold and develop his arguments as well as the opponent, in his group there is someone who could do this and could certainly argue better than the particular man he has against him; and he remembers, indeed, hearing expounded, discursively, coherently, in a way that left him convinced, the reasons behind his faith. He has no concrete memory of the reasons and could not repeat them, but he knows that reasons exist, because he has heard them expounded, and was convinced by them. The fact of having once suddenly seen the light and been convinced is the permanent reason for his reasons persisting, even if the arguments in its favour cannot be readily produced.[139]

How does Gramsci propose for communists to combat “common sense”? First, as we have already mentioned, change will take active intervention and will spontaneously emerge from changes in the economy. The organic intellectuals who emerge from the people will need to remain connected with them and to raise their intellectual level by utilizing two methods:

1. Never to tire of repeating its own arguments (though offering literary variation of form): repetition is the best didactic means for working on the popular mentality.

2. To work incessantly to raise the intellectual level of evergrowing strata of the populace, in other words, to give a personality to the amorphous mass element. This means working to produce elites of intellectuals of a new type which arise directly out of the masses, but remain in contact with them to become, as it were, the whalebone in the corset.[140]

This means that communism, if it is to be revolutionary, must become not the guarded theory of a small sect, but the “common sense” and “faith” of millions. And this has been a common practice of socialists and communists who have made revolutions throughout history: classes organized by a party or union on any number of topics, cheap pamphlets to explain complex ideas, literacy campaigns using revolutionary language and imagery, proletarian literature, songs, slogans, cartoons, plays, big-character posters in the Cultural Revolution, and so on. That is how revolutionary theory is spread beyond intellectual and party circles to reach the masses, where it becomes “common sense” to them and a mass movement of intellectual and moral reform that can change the world.

VI. Philosophy of praxis

Many of the elements of Gramsci's renewal of Marxism “the philosophy of praxis” we have already discussed: his rejection of determinism, teleology and mechanism, openness of history, grasp of strategy, the activist role of the party, hegemony, the function of intellectuals, mass philosophy and culture. Along with his contemporaries V.I. Lenin, Georg Lukacs, Leon Trotsky, Karl Korsch, Jose Carlos Mariategui, Henryk Grossmann and Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci was one of those who sought to restore the dynamism of Marxist theory and practice after the betrayal of social democracy in 1914 and the success of the Russian Revolution.

In contrast to many socialists and communists, Gramsci conceived of Marxism as a living philosophy and a research project, which could understand the contradictory nature of the masses' “common sense” and nurture its positive elements toward a higher conception of the world. He saw Marxism as the philosophy of praxis where both theory and practice were linked with the mission of changing the world. Gramsci's philosophy of praxis therefore finds itself diametrically opposed to the contemporary fashions of “academic Marxism” which divorce theory and practice. Ultimately, Gramsci sought to develop a living philosophy that sought to learn from other currents of thought in a critical and fair manner in order to strengthen and renew itself, but never lost sight of its revolutionary mission.

Let us return to Gramsci's ideas of common sense, where he stressed that “everyone is a philosopher, though in his own way and unconsciously”.[141] All people are spontaneous philosophers and their personalities are possess strange and contradictory elements containing “Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy which will be that of a human race united the world over”.[142] However, Gramsci believes that it is imperative to not leave people with “the 'simple' in their primitive philosophy of common sense, but rather to lead them to a higher conception of life”.[143] Therefore, it is necessary to recognize that within the contradictory nature of “common sense” there exist elements which he terms “good sense” that need to be developed into something more unitary and coherent which communists need to nurture.

These elements of “good sense” are widely known: workers deserve a living wage, soldiers should not die for the profits of the wealthy, education is a right, etc. And yet, these fragmentary ideas are intermixed with more reactionary ideas and myths which support the prevailing hegemonic ideas of the ruling class. For Gramsci, Marxism, if it is to fulfill its revolutionary role cannot separate the “high culture” of intellectuals from the “common sense” of the masses. This deficiency is something that Gramsci challenges in Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology, an introductory Marxist textbook by Nikolai Bukharin. Gramsci says that the great mistake of Bukharin is that he begins by only looking at high culture and the views of intellectuals, forgetting that “these systems are unknown to the multitude and have no direct influence on its way of thinking and acting”.[144] Bukharin treats these theories of the world as systemic and coherent, as opposed to the contradictory way they are lived by the masses as common sense.

Bukharin forgets that different conceptions of the world, such as Catholicism do influence the thinking of the masses, but not as single unified view of the world. According to Gramsci, “These systems influence the popular masses as an external political force, an element of cohesive force exercised by the ruling classes and therefore an element of subordination to an external hegemony”.[145] And when engaging with a hegemonic idea such as Catholicism, it is necessary to recognize that it contains in “reality a multiplicity of distinct and often contradictory religions” which is experienced differently depending on one's class or whether they are in the countryside or the city, etc. While Gramsci never once denies the need for Marxism to engage in polemics with traditional philosophies, he also emphasizes that the “starting point must always be that common sense which is the spontaneous philosophy of the multitude and which has to be made ideologically coherent”.[146]

The task of Marxist philosophy, then, is to interrogate common sense, finding those elements of “good sense” that are “elements pregnant with a new conception of the world. It aims at an intellectual and moral reform of senso comune, thus allowing the subaltern masses to exit from their passivity,to construct a new experience of the world and to become ‘actors’”.[147] Therefore, Marxism, as opposed to the Catholic Church, which sought to keep separate the religion of the masses from that of the intellectuals, needed to bridge that gap.
And it is interesting to note that one of Gramsci's criticisms of idealistic or immanentist philosophies, such as those of Croce is the “fact that they have not been able to create an ideological unity between the bottom and the top, between the "simple" and the intellectuals”.[148]

We can see this separation between intellectuals and the masses manifested in a slightly different way with various forms of academic radicalism or “Marxism”. Academic “Marxists” write theory for its own sake in obscurantist language that is only understood by a small group of other academics. And even if one is to wade through the needless difficulty found throughout academic “Marxism”, it generally has little to no relation to anything in real life. “Theory” in this sense is done exclusively for publication in academic journals or to present at conferences. It possesses no relation to any revolutionary practice nor does it seek to reach the broad masses.

However, Gramsci was not arguing for crude anti-intellectualism or to “dumb down” material in nifty 80 page pamphlets that answer all the world-historical questions for workers. Rather, he believed that only Marxism could provide the necessary educational function of leading them towards a new culture and higher conception of life. This is the task that concerned him, not seminars or a fully-padded CV. “For a mass of people to be led to think coherently and in the same coherent fashion about the real present world, is a "philosophical" event far more important and "original" than the discovery by some philosophical "genius" of a truth which remains the property of small groups of intellectuals”.[149]

So what led Gramsci to argue that it was only Marxism that could fulfill the task of raising the masses to a new and higher way of life? For one, the philosophy of praxis placed social action at the center of its view of the world. As Marx said, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”. However, Marx was not a calling for action for its own sake, but a unity of theory and practice. Theory without practice was impotent, while practice without theory was blind. Gramsci thus dialectically linked the two in his Marxism as the “philosophy of praxis”. And we have already seen how Gramsci stressed the importance of linking Marxist philosophy to the development of organic intellectuals and the “Modern Prince” to develop mass political movement guided by a new “faith”.

Gramsci did not view Marxism as the only philosophy of the world sealed off from all others, but rather he saw Marxism as a worldview that builds upon the achievements and insights of other philosophies. Marx himself developed his worldview through critical engagement with French socialism, English political economy, and German classical philosophy. The result of this was a view of the world that linked theory with the masses. As Gramsci put it: “The philosophy of praxis presupposes all this cultural past: Renaissance and Reformation, German philosophy and the French Revolution, Calvinism and English classical economics, secular liberalism and this historicism which is at the root of the whole modern conception of life.

The philosophy of praxis is the crowning point of this entire movement of intellectual and moral reformation, made dialectical in the contrast between popular culture and high culture”.[150] The comparison Gramsci makes of Marxism to the Renaissance and Reformation is important to highlight. Whereas the Renaissance was a period of stellar advances in high intellectual culture, the Reformation was characterized much more by the involvement of the masses popular. And Marxism itself was a synthesis of by linking advances in philosophy, political theory, and socialism to a mass movement of the working class.

Marxism is able to achieve this because it “cannot be confounded with or reduced to any other philosophy. Its originality lies not only in its transcending of previous philosophies but also and above all in that it opens up a completely new road, renewing from head to toe the whole way of conceiving

philosophy itself”.[151] Marxism must be able to engage and learn from the various theories, thinkers and disciplines and common sense while critically absorbing what is useful in order to renew itself. Otherwise the fate of Marxism is to remain a stagnant theory divorced from the struggles of the world and unable to fulfill its revolutionary mission.

Can we not see this standpoint reflected in the work of Gramsci himself? Although he remained a stalwart Marxist and revolutionary, even in prison he engaged in dialogue with the most advanced intellectuals of his day whether Benedetto Croce or Nikolai Bukharin. Gramsci described his own approach as follows: “I generally find it necessary to take up a dialectical or dialogic standpoint, otherwise I don’t feel any intellectual stimulation. As I once told you, I don’t like to throw stones into the dark; I like to be faced with a concrete partner or opponent”.[152] His approach of learning was not to use ad hominems, pick their weakest arguments or to take cheap shots.

Rather, he was fair to his adversaries in order to raise the tone of debate and to sharpen his intellectual tools: 

Further: "one must be fair to one's enemies", in the sense that one must make an effort to understand what they really meant to say and not maliciously stop short at the superficial immediate meaning of their expressions. That is to say, if the end proposed is that of raising the tone and intellectual level of one's followers and not just the immediate aim of creating a desert around oneself by all means possible. The point of view to be adopted is this: one's supporter must discuss and uphold his own point of view in debate with capable and intelligent opponents and not just with clumsy untrained people who are convinced "by authority" or "by emotion".[153]

The approach of Gramsci to debate and learning is something sadly lacking on the contemporary far left. Too often, theories are attacked for superficial reasons such as the foolish comments that one adherent utters as opposed to looking at their content. Or positions are attributed to a thinker in order to score points. Or the debate is lowered to mudslinging and personal insults. And perhaps, most curiously of all, there are masses of Maoists, Trotskyists, anti-revisionists, anarchists, and others who see fit to criticize their rivals without ever investigating what they actually say at all.

This is all utterly foreign to how Marxists such as Gramsci believed learning and constructive debate is to be conducted. The purpose of learning from others and absorbing their key insights was approached as follows by Gramsci: “The purpose of the synthesis must be to criticize the problems, to demonstrate their real value, if any, and the significance they have had as superseded links of an intellectual chain, and to determine what the new contemporary problems are and how the old problems should now be analysed”.[154]

All of this renewal and revitalization of Marxism theory led Gramsci to view society and humanity as never fixed, but always in motion. Human beings are not just a part of the natural world, nor are we doomed to remain at its mercy. Our fate is not to be passively accepted, but through the tools of a living Marxism, it can be actively overcome: “The basic innovation introduced by the philosophy of praxis (i.e. Marxism) into the science of politics and of history is the demonstration that there is no abstract "human nature", fixed and immutable (a concept which certainly derives from religious and transcendentalist thought), but that human nature is the totality of historically determined social relations, hence an historical fact which can, within certain limits, be ascertained with the methods of philology and criticism”.[155]

VII. Conclusion

The work of Gramsci's life was to sharpen the tools of communist theory and practice for the struggles ahead. Whether in the factory councils of Turin or in Mussolini's prisons, the goal of Gramsci remained the same: working towards the socialist revolution. It does the greatest dishonor to reduce him to a great commentator on “cultural studies” locked away in academia or to twist him into an advocate for a reformist politics. To do so is to betray the heart of his thought and his mission in life. And his task remains ours: to renew Marxism in both theory and practice for the future revolution. As the motto to Gramsci's L'Ordine Nuovo declared:
Study because we will need all your intelligence.

Agitate because we will need all your enthusiasm.

Organize because we will need all your strength.

Sources consulted


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Gramsci, Antonio. Antonio Gramsci: Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995.
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Anderson, Perry. “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”. New Left Review 100 (1976-1977): 5-78.
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Rees, John. The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Rosengarten, Frank. The Revolutionary Marxism of Antonio Gramsci. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015.
Santucci, Antonio. Antonio Gramsci. New York: Monthly Review, 2010.

Sassoon, Anne Showstack. Gramsci’s Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Schwarzmantel, John. The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Simon, Roger. Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1991.
Spriano, Paolo. The Occupation of the Factories: Italy 1920. London: Pluto Publishers, 1975.
Thomas, Peter D. The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009.
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[1] Portions of this essay are drawn from the following works of mine, some of which were substantially rewritten for inclusion here: “How anarchists, syndicalists, socialists and IWW militants were drawn to Bolshevism: four case studies”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.; “Theory of the Offensive”, Kasama Project.; “Rapids of Revolution”, Kasama Project.

[2] Alastair Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography (London: Merlin Press, 1977), 48.

[3] John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969), 7.

[4] Davidson, 1977, 49.

[5] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Political Writings 1910-1920 (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 5.

[6] Davidson, 1977, 54. The phrase Vendee of Italy was uttered by PSI leader Turati. The Vendee refers to peasant counterrevolution uprising led by priests and royalists against the French Revolution in the 1790s.

[7] Ibid. 61.

[8] Ibid. 63.

[9] Gramsci, 1977, 7.

[10] Ibid. 7.

[11] Ibid. 8.

[12] Ibid. 13.

[13] Davidson, 1977, 73.

[14] Gramsci, 1977, 11. Davidson, 1977, 72-81 for Gramsci and his work with the Turin proletariat and views on culture.

[15] Gramsci, 1977, 34.

[16] Ibid. 34-5.

[17] Ibid. 54.

[18] Ibid. 54.

[19] Cammett, 1969, 65.

[20] Gwyn A. Williams, Proletariat Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy 1911-1921 (London: Pluto Press, 1975), 56.

[21] Ibid. 57.

[22] Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 170.

[23] Cammett, 1969, 26.

[24] Ibid. 75.

[25] Antonio Gramsci, Gramsci: Pre-Prison Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 98.

[26] Cammett, 1969, 100.

[27] Ibid. 115.

[28] Ibid. 115.

[29] Ibid. 120.

[30] Ibid. 121

[31] Gramsci, 1977, 183.

[32] Cammett, 1969, 102.

[33] Eley, 2002, 171.

[34] Ibid. 172.

[35] Gramsci, 1977, 191.

[36] Ibid. 192.

[37] Ibid. 195.

[38] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), xlvi. Henceforth SPN.

[39] Gramsci 1977, 191.

[40] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978), 16. Gramsci's analyzes of fascism can be found in David Beetham, ed., Marxists in the Face of Fascism (Totowa: Barnes and Nobel Books, 1984), 82-88 and 121-7.

[41] Gramsci 1978, 357.

[42] SPN xvi.

[43] Quoted in Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), 110.

[44] Ibid. 102-108. On pp. 107-8, Thomas says that Gramsci's choice of the phrase “philosophy of praxis” in place of Marxism is not to avoid the censor but: “Much easier and more rational than the codeword thesis is to come to the obvious conclusion: when Gramsci writes ‘philosophy of praxis’, he does not mean ‘Marxism’, or, more exactly, he does not simply mean ‘Marxism’, understood as all of the initiatives undertaken, more-or-less faithful to the works of Marx, by different tendencies of the Marxist tradition. Rather, he means, precisely, the ‘philosophy of praxis’. We can, in fact, chart quite precisely the emergence of this term in Gramsci’s vocabulary, as the signifier of a substantially new position, related to but distinct from positions previously comprehended in an older language. In the early phases of his research, he continues to use the appellation ‘Marxism’. However, he does deploy the term ‘philosophy of praxis’ in relation to thinkers traditionally seen as outside the canon of Marxist authors....It was his distinctive intervention into the post-Lenin conjunctural debates about the future development of Marxist theory, debates that unfortunately were unable to consider Gramsci’s contribution. This concept is representative of the other terminological novelties introduced by Gramsci into the Marxist tradition: a formal addition necessitated by a substantial transformation at the level of conceptual content. Just as with the concepts he appropriated from other thinkers, Marxist and non-Marxist, there is precision in Gramsci’s development and deployment of his own concepts, processes whose different stages and particular times can and must be philologically verified.”

[45] SPN 330.

[46] Ibid. 342.

[47] Karl Kautsky, “The Road to Power”, Marxists Internet Archive.

[48] Quoted in Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 192.

[49] SPN 332-333.

[50] Gramsci 1977, 65.

[51] Ibid. 66.

[52] Ibid. 68.

[53] Gramsci 1978, 15.

[54] SPN 171-2.

[55] Gramsci 1978, 57.

[56] SPN 345.

[57] Ibid. 345

[58] I am also drawing heavily on the work of Peter Hallward to develop these insights. See in particular his “From Prescription to Volition”, Politics and Culture. and “What Is Political Will?” MRZine.

[59] SPN 438.

[60] Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”, New Left Review 100 (1976-1977): 15.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid. 16.

[63] Vladimir I. Lenin, What is to be Done? (Peking: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1973), 99-100.

[64] This was quoted partly in Anderson 1976-1977, 17, the full quote can be found in V. I. Lenin, “Marxism and Nasha Zarya”, Marxists Internet Archive.

[65] SPN 365.

[66] Anderson 1976-1977, 18.

[67] SPN 238.

[68] Ibid. 12.

[69] Ibid. 238.

[70] Ibid. 12.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid. 80.

[74] Anderson 1976-1977, 49.

[75] Ibid. 62 and 72.

[76] Thomas 2009, 137. For Thomas' critique of Anderson's essay see 41-84.

[77] Ibid. 144.

[78] Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, Marxists Internet Archive.

[79] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, Marxists Internet Archive.

[80] Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Marxists Internet Archive.

[81] V. I. Lenin, “The State and Revolution”, Marxists Internet Archive.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Ibid.

[84] See also my “Marxist View of the State”, Kasama Project.

[85] SPN 137 and 366.

[86] Anne Showstack Sassoon, Gramsci's Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1987), 120.

[87] SPN 377.

[88] Sassoon 1987, 121.

[89] Ibid. 121.

[90] Ibid.

[91] 122.

[92] Ibid.

[93] The Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas builds upon Gramsci's concepts of “hegemony” and “historical bloc” in order to develop the idea of a “power bloc” that rules a state consists of classes and class fractions with a certain group at its core directing policy and seeks to establish its hegemony over the dominated.
"The concept of hegemony is also used in another sense, which is not actually pointed out by Gramsci. The capitalist state and the specific characteristics of the class struggle in a capitalist social formation make it possible for a 'power bloc,' composed of several politically dominant classes or fractions to function. Amongst these dominant classes and fractions one of them holds a particular dominant role, which can be characterized as a hegemonic role. In this second sense, the concept of hegemony encompasses the particular domination of one of the dominant classes or fractions in a capitalist social formation."
See Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes (London: Verso, 1968), 141. And for more on the power bloc see ibid. 229-50, 255-6 and 396-305.

[94] Sassoon 1987, 123-4.

[95] SPN 161.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Ibid. 57.

[98] Ibid. 244.

[99] Ibid. 235.

[100] Many of Gramsci's criticisms of Trotsky, including this one, were unfair. Trotsky, far from being an advocate of frontal attacks was one of the champions of the Comintern's united front.

[101] SPN 237.

[102] Ibid. 234.

[103] Ibid. 231-2.

[104] Ibid. 132-3.

[105] Ibid. 232.

[106] Ibid. 239.

[107] Ibid. 233.

[108] Ibid.

[109] Ibid. 210-211.

[110] See Richard Seymour's Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made (New York: Pluto Press, 2014) for a discussion of capital's austerity strategy in the current crisis.

[111] SPN 118-119. For Gramsci on other “passive revolutions” see Caesarism 215, 216, 219, 223, 227, 228, 301; Risorgimento 56-106; Americanism and Fordism 279, 280, 281, 289, 292-3, 302-4, 307, 310-13.

[112] Seymour 2014,170-1.

[113] SPN184.

[114] Ibid. 78.

[115] Daniel Bensaid, An Impatient Life: A Memoir (New York: Verso, 2014), 87.

[116] Daniel Bensaid, “Revolutionary Strategy Today”, International Institute for Research and Education. 6. Found at
For my discussion on Leninism my “Leninism and Blanquism”, Cultural Logic; “The Resolute Subject: Daniel Bensaïd, Voluntarism and Strategy” (forthcoming); and Lukacs: Lessons for Today (forthcoming).

[117] SPN 132-3.

[118] Ibid. 181.

[119] Ibid.

[120] Ibid.

[121] Ibid.

[122] Ibid.

[123] Ibid. 366-7.

[124] Gramsci 1978, 443.

[125] See my own essays on Lenin and Lukacs listed in footnote 105.

[126] SPN 184.

[127] Ibid. 164.

[128] Ibid. 336.

[129] Ibid. 168.

[130] Ibid. 185.

[131] Gramsci 1977, 309.

[132] SPN 5.

[133] Ibid.

[134] Ibid. 7

[135] Ibid. 144.

[136] Ibid. 10.

[137] Ibid. 326.

[138] Ibid. 419.

[139] Ibid. 339.

[140] Ibid. 340.

[141] Ibid. 323.

[142] Ibid. 324.

[143] Ibid. 332.

[144] Ibid. 419-20.

[145] Ibid. 420.

[146] Ibid. 421.

[147] Quoted in Thomas 2009, 16.

[148] SPN 329.

[149] Ibid. 325.

[150] Ibid. 395.

[151] Ibid. 464.

[152] Quoted in Thomas 2009, 124.

[153] SPN 439-440.

[154] Ibid. 331.

[155] SPN 133.

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