Antonio Gramsci and the Modern Prince


By Paul Le Blanc

December 1, 2018 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – In this period of global crises and ferment, radical and revolutionary activists are reaching for modes of organization and political practice that can help advance their struggle for human liberation. For growing numbers, the political and organizational perspectives of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin are becoming a pole of attraction – providing an increasingly desired coherence and revolutionary edge. Yet the Leninist tradition can most fruitfully be understood not as providing dogmatic Truths fashioned by a revolutionary genius, but rather as a collective project and process, creatively fashioned and made relevant by insightful, passionate activists engaging with a variety of contexts. 

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) offers an incredibly rich way of articulating and applying Leninist perspectives. As a Marxist, Gramsci saw future possibilities as being conditioned by past and present “objective” economic and social realities. But his thought was also alive to multiple possibilities – grounded in the understanding that not only are “objective” factors too complex and fluid to befullygrasped in analysis, but that the consciousness and actions of human beings (especially when informed by revolutionary theory and focused through effective organization) can alter the “objective” factors. Consistent with Lenin’s conceptualization of Marxism, this approach dovetails as well with that articulated by Georg Lukàcs in 1923-28.[1]

In the 1920s, Gramsci and Lukàcs were key leaders, respectively, in the Italian and Hungarian Communist parties. Each sought, at a moment when Stalinist influences were about to swamp the Communist movement with authoritarian and sectarian policies, to remain true to the principled revolutionary perspectives of the first four congresses of the Communist International. As Perry Anderson has noted, while in prison, Gramsci “categorically opposed [Stalin’s] ‘third period’ line from 1930 onwards, maintaining positions not unlike those of Lukàcs in 1928, which stressed the importance of intermediate democratic demands under fascism, and the vital need to win the alliance of the peasantry to overthrow it.”[2] 

Gramsci and Lukàcs have been associated with a trend that has been given the misleading label of “Western Marxism,” associated with a diverse assortment of theorists including Karl Korsch, thinkers affiliated with the Frankfurt School (including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse), Henri Lefebvre, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and others. The so-called “Western Marxists” shared in common fairly sophisticated philosophical orientations, rejecting the intellectual narrowness of Stalinism as well as the somewhat rigid interpretation of Marxism associated with many of the so-called “orthodox Marxists” of the Second International (or Socialist International) of 1889-1914. They refused to view “subjective” factors of culture and consciousness as being merely reflections of “objective” economic factors. Questions of capitalism and socialism, and how to get from one to the other, could be adequately grasped – they insisted – only through engagement with both “subjective” and “objective” factors, whose interplay was far more complex than “vulgar Marxists” were inclined to acknowledge.[3] 

Gramsci was profoundly influenced by the dialectical philosophical orientation of G.W.F. Hegel, popularized in Italy by such academics as Benedetto Croce and Antonio Labriola, and was vibrantly alive to a multiplicity of cultural questions. This approach emphasizes the complex dynamism and fluidity of reality, which can be understood as an evolving totality of contradictory and interactive elements. Economics and class conflict are central to him, but these are understood in rich interplay with history and culture. Far from being simply a philosophical culture critic, however, Gramsci was a political leader concerned with the practicalities of revolutionary strategy, tactics and organization within the revolutionary wing of the workers’ movement. Yet in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with his political commitments all too often set aside, he has been a primary reference point in much “post-modernist” discourse dealing with innumerable (and often quite interesting) cultural issues. Abstracting his ideas from the person that he actually was, however, can distort the meaning of what he actually said.[4] An examination of one of his best known works, “The Modern Prince,” highlights Gramsci as a theorist focused on practical revolutionary politics.

Who Gramsci was

To gain a better sense of this remarkable person, we can first refer – all too fleetingly – to knowledgeable people who have written about Gramsci. If we consider our common humanity with this world-famous thinker, we might find meaningful entry-points for considering his ideas. 

We are our bodies. “Antonio never grew to be more than four and three-quarters feet tall. He had two humps, one in front and the other in back, giving him a deformed appearance,” Gramsci scholar Dante Germino tells us. “His normal-sized head appeared huge and awkward on his short frame. He also walked lamely.” According to biographer Giuseppe Fiori, “from earliest childhood he was kept going by extraordinary will-power and a determination to make up in every possible way for his deformity.”[5]

We are shaped through experiences from childhood to youth. “As a boy he felt unloved, alienated, humiliated,” according to another scholar, John Cammett. Yet this seems too sweeping as we consider the tenderness and caring reflected in stories of and letters to family members (he was the fourth of seven children). There were certainly happy times as he grew up in the village of Ghilarza, on the island of Sardinia. Yet his father was a downwardly-mobile white-collar worker, a civil servant caught stealing, which resulted in a four-year imprisonment. Fiori also tells us “Antonio was deeply disturbed by the terrible poverty in the family after his father’s arrest, by the psychological repercussions of this calamity as well as by his own physical ailment.” For two years a teenage Gramsci was forced to labor for ten hours a day, six days a week plus Sunday mornings, in a physically demanding job at a local registry office. His interrupted education was finally resumed, largely through the family’s sacrificial efforts and his own hard work.[6] 

We are what we feel. Writing in the 1970s, an editor of his prison letters, Lynne Lawner, commented that “local people still speak of a certain closed quality of his personality” during Gramsci’s adolescence, but that “he is mostly remembered for his cheerfulness, taste for jest and horseplay, and expansive character.” In letters to intimates, written in 1923-26, Gramsci refers on the one hand to memories of “colorful” childhood days “that bring back pleasure,” but also to “the other side of the coin,” musing: “My life has always been a spent flame, a desert.” There were awful memories in which “the sewer of my past brought things back up that for some time left me poisoned.” He wrote: “For many, many years I have been truly used to thinking of the absolute impossibility, almost a decree of fate, that I might be loved by somebody.” From the age of ten, “I was convinced I was a burden that intruded into my family.” He wrote of “a way of life that I have had since I was a boy . . . hiding my states of mind behind a hard mask or behind an ironic smile.”[7] 

As a multiply-disadvantaged outsider striving to prove himself, his perceptions and his mind were naturally sharpened. As one observer at the time reported, he “dominated his own unhappiness with an iron will for study, making efforts way beyond the strength of his organism.” A brilliant student with a passion for reading (“I’m getting on like a house on fire,” he commented at the time), Gramsci won a scholarship that enabled him to enter the University of Turin in 1911. He had been reading Marxist pamphlets and the Socialist Party’s paper Avanti since his early teens. An older brother had become a militant in the Italian Socialist Party, but the younger sibling would make his own way politically. Dante Germino has emphasized, “the fact that Gramsci eventually became a revolutionary has everything to do with his early experience of injustices in Sardinian soil.”[8] Germino’s elaboration merits attention:

Gramsci particularly seethed over descriptions of Sardinians as biologically inferior to Italians on the mainland. He learned early to recognize the intellectually and morally disgraceful tendency of some who belong to social groups temporarily enjoying power, wealth, and prestige to attribute inequalities brought about by their own selfish policies to the genetic “inferiority” of the people who have been oppressed. As Togliatti expressed it, Gramsci “sought for the explanation for the poverty and backwardness of the island in the actual relationships that prevailed between the different social groups.” For Antonio Gramsci, Sardinia was the laboratory in which the injustice of the larger world could be measured. As an entity, Sardinia was oppressed by the mainland; as a reflection of the social order prevalent on the Italian peninsula, the island’s own social order reflected the pattern, prevalent in Italy, of oppression by the powerful over the weak.[9]

We are what we do. Within two years, Gramsci became an activist within the Italian Socialist Party. As was the case with a majority of his Socialist Party comrades, he opposed the First World War (1914), although took up his own position in the revolutionary wing of that party. In 1919 he helped to found a new weekly, L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order), which sought to apply the lessons of the 1917 Russian Revolution to Italy. This paper became the voice of militant factory workers who engaged in a general strike and factory occupations that in 1920 seemed to threaten the overturn of Italian capitalism and a workers’ revolution. Socialist Party moderates who led the trade union movement quickly effected a compromise, however, which ended the strike, resulting in modest concessions for the workers and the continued (if temporary) survival of a liberal capitalist regime.[10] 

Frightened by the workers’ militancy, however, the landed aristocracy and industrialists concluded that a right-wing counter-force was needed, and they poured substantial resources into the rising fascist movement led by ex-socialist Benito Mussolini. Disgusted by the moderate Socialist sell-out, Gramsci and many others on the left end of the political spectrum concluded that a genuinely revolutionary workers’ party was needed. The result was the foundation of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1921.

Revolutionary leader

More than a key figure of the PCI in the early 1920s, Gramsci worked for the Communist International (or Third International) in Moscow and Vienna in this period. Victor Serge, who worked with him in the early Comintern in Vienna, remembering him as “an industrious and Bohemian exile, late to bed and late to rise,” tells us: 

His head was heavy, his brow high and broad, his lips thin; the whole was carried on a puny, square-shouldered, weak-chested, humpbacked body. There was grace in the movement of his fine, lanky hands. Gramsci fitted awkwardly into the humdrum of day-to-day existence . . . indifferent to the comfort of his lodgings and the quality of his meals – but intellectually he was absolutely alive. Trained intuitively in the dialectic, quick to uncover falsehood and transfix it with the sting of irony, he viewed the world with an exceptional clarity.[11] 

The rise and succession of victories of the fascist movement was a major concern to Gramsci and his comrades, but there was no agreement on appropriate perspectives for the PCI. Gramsci developed a perspective that was independent of the moderate line advanced by Angelo Tasca and also an alternative to what he saw as a sectarian and ultra-left line represented by Amadeo Bordiga. His perspective became predominant in the PCI, and he was considered to be its central leader. His columns in the Communist daily L’Unitá profoundly influenced and helped to educate his party’s working-class base. Gramsci was elected to parliament in 1924, where he was the leader of the Communist representatives. At a PCI national congress in January 1926, a party majority was won to Gramsci’s positions, advanced with the support of Palmiro Togliatti. Later in the year, however, he was arrested as the fascists consolidated their dictatorship. 

Mussolini had once referred to him as “this Sardinian hunchback and professor of economics and philosophy” who had “an unquestionably powerful brain.” The prosecutor at Gramsci’s trial – where he was convicted on six different charges of treason – warned the court of the dangers this posed in calling for a sentence of two decades: “We must stop this brain from functioning for twenty years.”[12] Gramsci doubly cheated the authorities – dying in eleven years, and doing intensive brain-work during his incarceration that has kept his thoughts “functioning” down to our own time. 

During his ten years in prison, where his health was finally broken, Gramsci was able to fill thirty-four thick notebooks with a remarkable range of political, socialism, historical, and cultural writings. The presence of fascist censors forced him to use code words and obscure formulations. The rising influence of Stalinism within the international Communist movement – and his resistance to aspects of Stalinist ideology combined with a desire not to be isolated from that movement – also contributed to obscure and contradictory formulations. This is especially so due to a number of indications that his theoretical and political orientation was fundamentally incompatible with that which Stalin imposed. There seems to be a consensus among those who knew him and later scholars that had he openly espoused some of the positions he held shortly before imprisonment and while in prison, we would have been expelled from the Communist movement – his Communist brother Gennaro and his comrade Togliatti shielded him, refusing to transmit certain communications to higher authorities.[13] Carl Marzani, the first person to introduce Gramsci’s thought to an English-speaking readership, has given a vivid sense of the drama of Gramsci’s final years:

Consider this man, for ten years in Mussolini’s jails. Even in the most humane prisons, the physical and psychological pressures in imprisonment are a terrible ordeal; what must it have been like to be in a fascist jail? Add the burden of pain and fatigue as tuberculosis ravages the organism; insomnia. Hemorrhages, faintings, deliriums. In August, 1931, the most serious symptoms appear and by March, 1933, the first complete physical breakdown. He recovers somewhat and continues writings until 1935, when he can no longer work as the disease burns the last remaining reserves of the body.

Watch him at work, day after day, fighting with the penal administration and with the government up to Mussolini himself for the right to get a few books, a few magazines. Denied any Marxist writings, he has to quote from memory, paraphrase, use in his study of Croce [a liberal political philosopher and critic of Marx] only what Croce gives of Marx, in other words make his argument on Croce’s own grounds. He has to think of the censorship, avoid the well-known words and names, so he develops a code: Marxism is called the philosophy of praxis (from the Greek, to do; practice); Marx becomes the founder of the philosophy of praxis and Engels the second founder; Lenin is the greatest modern theorist of praxis; Capital becomes the critique of political economy, and so on.

Yet he continues writing; an assiduous, incredible labor. How the greatness of humanity is reaffirmed by the tenacity of his will, particularly in the last few years as he writes with wasted body, death a hovering companion. The enormous effort is reflected in the physical act of writing. The first notebooks were neat, in a clear and regular calligraphy. At the end, the handwriting wavers, wanders, is erratic and weak. But the thinking remains lucid, vigorous, trenchant, while the style continues poised and professional, spiced with humor, irony, and a genial twist of phrase.[14]

Gramsci’s intellectual achievement would have powerful impact years after his death. Among the most important works embedded in the prison notebooks is the extensive essay “The Modern Prince,” composed between 1929 and 1934.

It is impossible to understand this text unless one is clear that Gramsci’s primary goal is to help develop a Leninist-type organization capable of mobilizing the working class and its allies in an effective struggle for political power. Such an understanding has been contested by certain influential Gramsci scholars, such as Carl Boggs and Anne Showstack Sassoon, each of whom has offered valuable discussions of Gramsci’s thought. Sassoon asserts that “Gramsci’s analysis of a mediated relationship between masses and state, between people and intellectuals is . . . very different from Lenin’s,” since the Russian leader envisioned “the substitution of one set of elite intellectuals for another.”[15] Boggs elaborates:

The concrete meaning of politics in Gramsci’s Marxism . . . was its role in enlisting mass energies in the struggle for ideological hegemony and in establishing a new socialist “national-popular” community out of the cleavages and crises of the old society. . . . Lenin’s type of Jacobinism . . . was elitistand authoritarian to the extent that it envisaged the revolutionary transition as a project defined and led by a tightly-organized nucleus of professional cadres. What Gramsci outlined was neither an anarchistic spontaneous mass movement nor an eliteparty that would be the exclusive repository of consciousness, but a synthesis of the two – an organic linkage between elite and mass, the organized and spontaneous, the planned element and the vital impulse. . . . Gramsci’s Jacobinism, thus contained a “popular” or consensual component that was not normally associated with the primacy of politics.[16]

As Alastair Davidson has demonstrated, however, this difference between Gramsci and Lenin is definitely not something that Gramsci himself believed he was articulating. Considered by many of his closest comrades as “an expert on Lenin,” Gramsci believed that the Bolshevik party “acquired its definite character” in 1907-1909, that “the fundamental emphasis of Leninism was on the links with the working class,” and that (in Gramsci’s view) Lenin in fact “regarded the links between the party and the mass was what were at stake in discussing the ‘leading role’ of the party.”[17] 

Peter Thomas has gone further to demonstrate that what Gramsci believed was neither an illusion nor a “politically correct” fiction. Polemicizing against the “mechanical and caricatured interpretation” of Russian revolutionary experience, Lenin insisted (in debates within the Communist International) that “in Europe, where almost all the proletarians are organized, we must win the majority of the working class and anyone who fails to understand this is lost to the Communist movement.” Thomas concludes: “Lenin’s advice on the need to win over the majority of the working class (understood in the broadest sense) as the sine qua non of revolutionary politics, whether in East or West, before or after a successful assault on bourgeois state power, became Gramsci’s fundamental orientation.”[18]

A considerable amount of recent scholarship corroborates the understanding of Lenin’s thought referred to in the analyses by Davidson and Thomas. More than this, a comparative analysis of the extensive document on party organization which Lenin helped to produce for the 1921 Third World Congress of the Communist International with Gramsci’s own elaboration in “The Modern Prince” reveals innumerable common themes and formulations.[19] Gramsci’s seminal work is nothing if not Leninist.

Machiavelli and Gramsci

Steeped in Italian history and cultural traditions, he turned to the classic text The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) – foremost political theorist of the Italian Renaissance – for the purpose of theorizing the question of political power in modern times. Like Machiavelli, Gramsci sought to examine the question in a manner that superficially seems chillingly a-moral. It is a science that can serve heroes and villains, democrats and reactionaries, those bent on self-defense and those bent on murder – the emancipatory goals of Marx and Lenin, but also the despotic designs of Mussolini and Stalin.[20]

Like Machiavelli, Gramsci sees the key to politics as the question of leadership: “The first element is that there really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led. The entire science and art of politics are based on this primordial and (given certain general conditions) irreducible fact.” A difference between Machiavelli and Gramsci lies in the phrase “given certain conditions.” These are the conditions of modern class society, which have not always existed (first crystallizing roughly 5000 years ago) and which – as a Marxist – Gramsci believed can and must be overcome. As he puts it: “In the formation of leaders, one premise is fundamental: is it the intention that there should always be rulers and ruled, or is it the objective to create the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary?”[21]

Another difference between Machiavelli and Gramsci is that the theorist of the Middle Ages believed that leadership would be provided by individual heroes and villains – princes – whereas Gramsci believed that the modern prince must be collective and can only be a political party, which is the focus of his text. As he notes, “the formation of the party system” involves “an historical phase linked to the standardization of broad masses of the population (communications, newspapers, big cities, etc.) ...”[22]

Fertile ambiguities

In Gramsci’s discussion, there are a variety of ambiguities, deriving from several problems. One is his desire to elude the watchful eyes of various censors – certainly those of his fascist jailers, but also, potentially some of his own comrades who are coming under the powerful influence of Stalinism. Intertwined with this is the fact that he is dealing, more or less, with all political parties of modern times, and sometimes it seems unclear whether he is talking about a fascist party, a more or less democratic-republican bourgeois or petty-bourgeois party, a reformist social-democratic party, or a communist party (and of the latter, one that is healthy or one that is infected with bureaucratic or sectarian tendencies).

Other ambiguities are perhaps more profound. In particular, at one point he states that “every party is the expression of a social group, and one social group only.” But only a few pages later he tells us that “the great industrialists utilize all the existing parties turn by turn, but they do not have their own party,” observing that in England the industrialists shifted from the Liberal to the Conservative party, even reaching a significant accommodation with the Labour Party. He adds that some parties (it is tempting here to think of our own Democratic and Republican parties in the United States) represent “a nexus of classes, great and small, rather than a single, great class.” But he then enunciates “the theoretical truth that every class has a single party.”[23] Without trying to unravel here what seems like a contradictory knot, it can be suggested that such a critical “working-out” process might provide a fruitful way of developing rich insights into complex political realities.

An additional ambiguity can be found in Gramsci’s assertion that “the counting of ‘votes’ is the final ceremony of a long process, in which it is precisely those who devote their best energies to the State and the nation (when such they are) who carry the greatest weight” – but then he tells us that “the historical rationality of numerical consensus is systematically falsified by the influence of wealth.”[24]

Revolutionary goals shape revolutionary organization

Actually, from this point, Gramsci moves immediately to a veiled discussion of an expansive, revolutionary democracy – based on governance by democratic working-class councils (or soviets) in which, as he puts it, political life moves beyond “the canons of formal democracy,” and “the people’s consent does not end at the moment of voting,” but rather also involves active participation in implementing the decisions, giving new life and deeper meaning (or proletarian content) to the idea of self-government.

This relates to Gramsci’s remarks regarding “that determinate party which has the aim of founding a new type of State (and which was rationally and historically created for that end).” From his 1921 mini-essay “Real Dialectics” we can understand that Gramsci unambiguously views the Italian Communist Party in this light, emerging from lessons learned from momentous events, “the real dialectics of history,” by growing numbers of individuals who are part of “the worker and peasant masses.”[25] 

While he makes reference in “The Modern Prince” to this party’s “inevitable progress to State power,” he was convinced that victory would also be dependent on the revolutionary party developing in a manner that linked it organically to the laboring masses. Elsewhere in “The Modern Prince” he is critical of so-called parties made up of what he dismissively refers to as “’volunteers,’ and in a certain sense declassés” that “have never or almost never represented homogeneous social blocs,” but are instead “the political equivalent of gypsy bands or nomads.”[26]

This seems a slap at the kinds of left-wing (often ultra-left) sects that have proliferated over the years. Their sectarianism prioritizes their own small-group needs and “purity” at the expense of possibilities for real struggles that could benefit and help politicize masses of people. This contrasts with Gramsci’s vision of what is needed in moving forward to drawing together massive “social blocs” actually capable of bringing revolutionary change. 

Gramsci, after all, had not been a product of “far-left” small-group politics, which became prevalent in many countries on the Left in the late twentieth century. The Italian Socialist Party had a membership that rose from 81,000 to 216,000 in 1920, with a vote in parliamentary elections that rose from 347,000 in 1913 to 1,756,000 in 1919 – its seats in parliament rose from 47 to 156, making it the strongest single party in parliament. It controlled half of the local governments in the country, involving 2,162 villages, towns of various sizes, and such cities as Milan, Bologna, and Turin. Trade unions linked to the party rose from 320,000 in 1914 to 1,159,00 in 1919 and 2,320,000 in 1920. The cooperative movement intimately connected to the party had nearly three million members in 1921. 

This was the moment when working-class socialist forces split and the Italian Communist Party crystallized, with a membership of about 40,000 and a militant youth movement of 28,000. The Communists had support of about one-third of trade unionists in Italy’s major labor federation. After the split, they were able to elect 13 representatives to parliament (in contrast to 128 from the Socialist Party). This was seen as only the beginning, and Gramsci envisioned it becoming a force not only of the radicalized industrial workers in urban Italy but also winning “the support and consent of other layers, of the poor peasants and the intellectual proletariat.” Suggesting that the old Socialist Party had “drawn a crowd” with “the methods of fairground demagogy,” he concluded: “The more the Italian population has plunged into chaos and disorientation, and the more the forces dissolving the past alignment of revolutionary forces have operated and continue to operate, the evidently necessary it appears to bring about a new alignment of loyal and trusty soldiers of the world revolution and of communism.”[27]

To achieve this, Gramsci advanced a particular way of developing and utilizing Marxism. In his discussion of Gramsci’s open Marxism, Carl Marzani commented: “The deeper one’s Marxism, the less one’s dogmatism. ” Frank Rosengarten – exploring Gramsci’s prison writings – makes a similar point. “As in the past, he insisted on the discipline, the rigor and the united will of the Party,” yet from his prison cell a deepened way of explaining this comes to the fore, a notion in stark contrast with the Marxist “orthodoxy” permeating the Communist International in the late 1920s and early 1930s: “it was necessary to adapt theory to events and not events to theory.” Or as Gramsci himself put it: “Reality is teeming with the most bizarre coincidences, and it is the theoretician’s task to find in this bizarreness new evidence for his theory, to ‘translate’ the elements of historical life into theoretical language, but not vice versa, making reality conform to an abstract scheme.”[28]

Flowing from this, Gramsci followed his theoretical mentors in seeking to translate Marxist theory into the distinctive cultural specifics and language of his own homeland. “For [Antonio] Labriola, as for Lenin at around the same time and later for Gramsci,” Gramsci scholar Valentino Gerratana tells us, “Marxism becomes a truly living force in the consciousness of a country and can produce in each country all of its effects only when the general principles of the doctrine assume a particular national form, tied to a tradition and open to an independent development.”[29]

Qualities of the revolutionary party

To understand the nature of a genuinely revolutionary party, Gramsci speculates on how the history of such an organization might be written. “A simple narrative of the internal life of a political organization” – focusing on the first groups that bring it into being, “the ideological controversies through which its program and conception of the world” are formed – will provide only an account of “certain intellectual groups” or even “the political biography of a single personality,” but will not provide an adequate understanding of the political party. To develop such an understanding, much more is required:

The history will have to be written of a particular mass of men who have followed the founders of the party, sustained them with their trust, loyalty and discipline, or criticized then “realistically” by dispersing or remaining passive before certain initiatives. But will this mass be made up solely of members of the party? Will it be sufficient to follow the congresses, the votes, etc., that is to say the whole nexus of activities and modes of existence through which the mass following of the party manifests its will? Clearly it will be necessary to take some account of the social group of which the party in question is the expression and the most advanced element. The history of a party, in other words, can only be the history of a particular social group. But this group is not isolated; it has friends, kindred groups, opponents, enemies. The history of any given party can only emerge from the complex portrayal of the totality of society and State (often with international ramifications too). Hence it may be said that to write the history of a party means nothing less than to write the general history of a country from a monographic viewpoint, in order to highlight a particular aspect of it. A party will have had greater or less significance and weight precisely to the extent to which its particular activity has been more or less decisive in determining a country’s history.[30] 

The richness of Gramsci’s discussion is deepened as he takes up a variety of questions. This includes an examination of different layers within the party: the “mass element” of “ordinary, average” members, who are essential to the organization’s existence but who by themselves cannot ensure the party’s existence; the experienced, knowledgeable and “innovative” layer constituting the party’s leadership, whose qualities make it the essential ingredient to the party’s existence; and “an intermediate element” of party militants who provide the crucial physical, intellectual and moral interconnections between the other two layers. The cohesion (or “centralism”) of the party is dependent on a so-called “policing” function that can either be educational, progressive, and democratic or repressive, reactionary, and bureaucratic. “The problem of assimilating the entire grouping to its most advanced fraction” is an educational problem that is threatened by the “danger of becoming bureaucratized.”[31] 

Related to this is Gramsci’s discussion of spontaneity. Gramsci insists that “pure” spontaneity does not exist in history, “that every ‘spontaneous’ movement contains rudimentary elements of conscious leadership, of discipline.” At the same time, it is not possible for “modern theory [Marxism] to be in opposition to the ‘spontaneous’ feelings of the masses.” Nonetheless, he sees “spontaneity” as an ideologically contested terrain, with the possibility of either “progressive” or “regressive” outcomes, and often involving “bizarre combinations.” The revolutionary theoretician (and revolutionary party) must “unravel these in order to discover fresh proof of [revolutionary] theory, to ‘translate’ into theoretical language the elements of historical life.” But he warned that “it is not reality which should be expected to conform to the abstract schema,” and that it is a mistake to see “as real and worthwhile only such movements of revolt as are one hundred per cent conscious, i.e. movements that are governed by plans worked out in advance to the last detail or in line with abstract theory.”[32] 

The appropriate interplay of spontaneous upsurges with conscious revolutionary organization, in Gramsci’s opinion, “can only be found in democratic centralism, which is, so to speak, a ‘centralism’ in movement – i.e. a continual adaptation of the organization of the real movement, a matching of thrusts from below with orders from above, a continuous insertion of elements thrown up from the depths of the rank and file into the solid framework of the leadership apparatus which ensures continuity and the regular accumulation of experience.”[33]

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will

A phrase commonly associated with Gramsci appeared on L’Ordine Nuovo under his editorship: “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.” It was a maxim taken from Romain Rolland (1866-1944), the French musicologist, pacifist, and Nobel Prize winning novelist who was a favorite of Gramsci’s.[34]

Rolland’s watchword, Gramsci argued in a 1920 polemic with the anarchists, characterized two essential aspects of “the socialist conception of the revolutionary process.” Observing that some anarchists wanted to repudiate Marx’s pessimistic notion that revolution “comes about as a result of an excess of poverty and oppression,” he affirmed that “socialist pessimism has found terrible confirmation in recent events: the proletariat has been plunged into the deepest abyss of poverty and oppression that the mind of man could ever conceive.” In the face of this reality, anarchist spokesmen “have nothing to counterpose but vacuous and irrelevant pseudo-revolutionary demagogy, interwoven with the most tired themes of street-level, simple-minded optimism.” It was, instead, the revolutionary pessimist who truly expressed an optimism of the will: 

The socialists . . . counterpose an energetic organizing campaign using the best and most conscious elements of the working class. In every way open to them, the socialists are striving via these vanguard elements to prepare the broadest sectors of the masses to win freedom and the power that can guarantee this freedom. 

He went on to insist on the necessity for what he would later label the modern prince – working “systematically to organize a great army of disciplined and conscious elements, ready for any sacrifice, trained to carry out slogans as one person, ready to assume effective responsibility for the revolution and become its agents,” thereby making possible the mobilization of “the creative capacity” of “the masses who are reduced to such conditions of bodily and spiritual slavery.”[35] Some years later (December 1929), from a fascist prison, he assured his youngest brother Carlo, 

you must realize that I am far from being discouraged or feeling beaten. . . . It seems to me that . . . a man ought to be so deeply convinced that the source of his own moral forces is in himself – his own energy and will, the iron coherence of ends and means – that he never despairs and never falls into those vulgar, banal moods, pessimism and optimism. My own state of mind synthesizes these two feelings and transcends them: my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and willpower to overcome each and every obstacle.[36]

It is interesting to see the way in which Gramsci’s example inspired the European cultural icon whose early work had inspired him, as in 1934 Romain Rolland sought to summarize for an international readership the meaning of Gramsci’s life, ideas, and impending death:

An iron spirit in a weak body. Ill from childhood – a fever of study and reflection. No bitterness. The joy of learning and sharing his knowledge. A passion for culture which he wished so ardently to communicate, which he later made an absolute duty for the proletariat. ... 

This philosophical mind, fed on Hegelianism, and specializing at the University in linguistic studies, was powerful above all in dialectic. ... He founded in May 1919, the Ordine Nuovo, with the collaboration of the executive of the Italian Communist Party. ... 

He turned himself into the schoolmaster of the proletarian revolution; but his lessons were inscribed in action, in bold characters. It was around him that there sprang up in Turin in 1919-20 the movement of factory councils, which he intended to turn into unit of the revolutionary army during the struggle and the units of the Workers’ State after victory. This victory he was not to see ... But a new example has been set which will be taken up, an example which links up with the great and victories experiment of Bolshevik Russia at the other end of Europe. ... Nor did Gramsci, who made no separation between philosophy and politics, escape the animosity and bitterness of the Duce [Mussolini]; but he was at any rate struck down fighting. ... They did him the honor of sentencing him, as the leader, to twenty years of imprisonment.

That means death for a man suffering from Pott’s disease, tuberculous lesions, arteriosclerosis, with arterial hypertension ... in his prison-tomb of Turi do Bari, where all possibility of serious attention is lacking . ... So, he will die. And Italian Communism, too, will have its great martyr, whose shadow and whose heroic flame will guide it in its future struggles.[37]

In his mind and notebooks, Gramsci systematically labored to develop conceptualizations of the modern prince, the disciplined and conscious collective, the revolutionary party, that he saw as essential to unleashing and mobilizing the immense creative energy of the oppressed. Those who continue the struggle for human liberation may find nourishment and strength from this gift.


[1] On Lukács, see Paul Le Blanc, “Spider and Fly: The Leninist Philosophy of Georg Lukács,” Historical Materialism, Vol. 21, No. 2 (2013), 47-75. Discussions of Lenin’s approach consistent with the point being made here can be found in Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin, An Intellectual Biography(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014), Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), and Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015). Also relevant are two works by Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: “What Is to Be Done?” in Context(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008) and Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), plus August H. Nimtz’s two-volume study The Ballot, The Streets – or Both, consisting of Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905 and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). A more general work arguing that – despite meaningful differences – Gramsci shares a basic revolutionary theoretical and strategic framework with Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky can be found in Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics, Second Edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).

[2] Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism(London: Verso, 1979), 31.

[3] Carl Marzani put it well: “Gramsci is the analyst of the superstructure, par excellence. In area after area – sociology, politics, mass psychology, literature, etc. – he deepened Marxism, sometimes going further than Lenin, for in many areas Lenin acted as a Marxist but did not write and develop the lessons of his experiences.” Carl Marzani, The Open Marxism of Antonio Gramsci(New York: Cameron Associates, 1957), 7. The same can be said of the 1920s contributions of Lukács.

[4] Frank Rosengarten makes the same point in his excellent collection of essays, The Revolutionary Marxism of Antonio Gramsci (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015),15-16. 

[5] Dante Germino, Antonio Gramsci, Architect of a New Politics(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 1; Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary(New York: Schocken Books, 1973), 19.

[6] John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967), 11-12; Fiori, 22; Germino, xv.

[7] Lynne Lawner, “Introduction,” Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison(New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 11; Antonio Gramsci, A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926, ed. by Derek Boothman (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 131, 132, 247.

[8] Alastair Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography(London: Merlin Press, 1977), 32, 34, 38; Fiori, 53; Germino, 5.

[9] Germino 11.

[10] An outstanding work on this period remains Gwyn A. Williams, Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy 1911-1921(London: Pluto Press, 1975).

[11] Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary(New York: New York Review of Books, 2012), 218-219.

[12] Cammett, 138, 182.

[13] Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 230-232; Fiori, 212-216, 249-258; Davidson, 240; Rosengarten, 22, 116-117; Germino, 146, 184, 257. Also see Emanuele Saccarelli, Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism: The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition(New York: Routledge, 2008). 

[14] Marzani, 13-14.

[15] Anne Showstack Sassoon, Gramsci’s Politics(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 258, 276.

[16] Carl Boggs, Gramsci’s Marxism(London: Pluto Press, 1976), 108-109. It is interesting that Carl Marzani, in later years, was inclined to make a similar distinction, as he explained his decision to ease out of Communist Party membership in the 1940s. Contrasting New York state chairman Israel Amter’s rigidity, characteristic of higher circles in the U.S. Communist Party, with his own more open and free-wheeling approach as a lower-level organizer on New York’s Lower East Side, Marzani later reflected: “He was a stickler for Party discipline, and, in his eyes, I was defying it. Neither of us knew it [then], but he was a Leninist and I was a Gramscian.” See Carl Marzani, The Education of a Reluctant Radical: Book 4, From Pentagon to Penitentiary(New York: Topical Books, 1995), 50-51, 55. Yet Amter’s organizational approach represented a Stalinist mode of functioning that both Amter and Marzani interpreted, in the 1940s, as “Leninism.” It would have been impossible for Amter to hold his high position in the Communist Party if he had thought or functioned otherwise. Similarly – but in stark contrast – it would have been impossible for Gramsci to be General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party in the 1920s if he had not been the kind of genuine Leninist that he was. Obviously, Leninism of that time tended to be far more open, critical-minded, creative (more “Gramscian”) than would be permissible after Stalin’s ascendancy. 

[17] Davidson, 91, 236, 237.

[18] Thomas, 208, 212. This is consistent with sources cited in footnote 1 above.

[19] “Theses on the Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties and the Methods and Content of Their Work,” in John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 978-1006; Paul Le Blanc, Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 85; Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 285-286. 

[20] Antonio Gramsci, “The Modern Prince,” Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 135. See also Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli, A Very Short Introduction(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[21] Ibid., 144

[22] Ibid., 195. 

[23] Ibid., 148, 156. 

[24] Ibid., 193. 

[25] Ibid., 197; “Real Dialectics,” in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, ed. by Quintin Hoare (New York: International Publishers, 1978), 15-16.

[26] Gramsci, “The Modern Prince,” 203-204.

[27] Julius Braunthal, History of the International, 1914-1943(New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967), 199, 208; Williams, 299; “Communists and the Elections,” in Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, 34.

[28] Marzani, The Open Marxism of Antonio Gramsci, 6; Rosengarten, 121.

[29] Quoted in Rosengarten, 43.

[30] Gramsci, “The Modern Prince,” 150-151.

[31] Ibid., 152-153.

[32] Ibid., 196, 198, 200.

[33] Ibid., 188-189.

[34] David James Fisher, Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 87-88; Davidson, 70, 80, 99, 101-102, 247. Rolland’s multi-volume masterwork, Jean-Christophe(New York: Modern Library, 1938), published from 1904 to 1912, about a fictional musical genius who does not compromise with oppressive forces of the status quo, as well as his opposition to the First World War – documented in Above the Battle(London: George Allan & Unwin, 1916) – powerfully impacted on other figures in the Marxist movement, including Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin, Victor Serge. In later years Rolland would tragically compromise his moral authority through acceptance of Stalin’s 1936-38 purges. 

[35] “Address to the Anarchists,” in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, ed. by Quintin Hoare (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 188-189.

[36] Gramsci, Letters from Prison, 158-159.

[37] Romain Rolland, “For Those Dying in Mussolini’s Jails. Antonio Gramsci” (1934), I Will Not Rest(New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1937), 310-313.