Gramsci in 1923: notes on the crucial year for his Leninism

More articles on Gramsci at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

By Jonathan Strauss

April 14, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Among those who are sympathetic to the views of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), two views have developed about the significance of his political theorising.

One is that Gramsci -- a leader of the Turin workers’ movement in the years at and immediately after the end of World War I, a founding member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and later the PCI secretary from 1923 until his jailing by the fascists in 1926, and author of the Prison Notebooks -- was “of the early-1920s Lenin-Trotsky stripe” (Thomas 2010). Beyond upholding these Marxists’ common revolutionary commitment, however, this view proceeds from a partial reading not so much of Gramsci as of Lenin, and especially on a particular understanding of his What Is to Be Done? (1902), which in turn prevents a more profound understanding of Gramsci’s relationship with Lenin’s thought.

Thus, for example, Paul Le Blanc (2011) discusses Gramsci’s and Lenin’s shared “Leninist” organisational orientation. He refers first to Lenin’s assertion, half a decade after his book was published, that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously socialist, and more than ten years of work put in by the socialist movement has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness” (cited in Le Blanc 2011). Le Blanc continues, Gramsci “warn[s] that the revolutionary organisation must not fall into ‘neglecting, or worse still despising, so-called “spontaneous’ moments” of mass action among the workers and oppressed’.”

The recent scholarship of Lars T. Lih (see, for example, Lih  2007, 2012), following that of Harding (1981), however, has shown the continuity of Lenin’s thoughts on organisation at the time of What Is to Be Done? with the experience of the German Social Democrats and these ideas’ subsequent development. Systematic organisation of the party was needed in Russia so that, like “the Germans” were doing, workers and “intellectuals” alike would be drawn to their common path of revolutionary training (Lenin 1902: 472-73).

Systematic party organisation was also needed so that its members would be “engaged ... in work that brings closer and merges into a single whole the elemental destructive force of the masses and the constructive destructive force of the organisation of revolutionaries” and to “ensure the flexibility required of a militant Social-Democratic organisation, viz., the ability to adapt itself immediately to the most divers[e] and rapidly changing conditions of struggle” (Lenin 1902: 512-13).

Lenin’s intent is the same as can be found in a further Le Blanc citation of Gramsci, who emphasises the interplay “between ‘spontaneity’ and ‘conscious leadership’” and a “democratic centralism, which is so to speak a ‘centralism’ in movement — a continual adaptation of the organisation to the real movement” (Le Blanc 2011).

Harding’s identification of imperialism as the key concept for a radical shift in Lenin’s thoughts on organisation from 1914 contradicts Lih’s thesis of that continuity. Lih maintains that the idea of a labour aristocracy bribed by imperialism, which Lenin cited as the social base for “bourgeois labour parties", had circulated quite widely within the Second International before World War I (2009: 104n). But Lenin’s new political conclusion was that these parties were inevitable in the imperialist countries (Harding, who is empathetic but not sympathetic to Lenin’s perspective, disagrees with that conclusion) in contrast to his previous view (see, for example, Lenin 1913: 217). Moreover, Lenin argued the perspective that workers’ parties would include that opportunist trend was an “old theory that ... has now turned into ... a tremendous hindrance’ (Lenin 1915: 257).

In contrast to the view that subsumes Gramsci within “the Lenin-Trotsky stripe”, the dominant view about his significance is that he provided “a sophisticated theory of the political realm” as a supplement to Marx and Engels socioeconomic theory and “a theory of how the proletariat must organise politically if it is to effectively respond to capital’s crises and failures, and bring about revolutionary change” in contrast to Lenin (Brown 2009).

So, for example, within this view the original employment of “hegemony” among Russian revolutionaries is acknowledged, but whereas in that context it is seen to refer to considerations in revolutionary strategy about working-class leadership of other classes or in the united front tactic, in Gramsci hegemony becomes central to the explanation of how any social group gains and maintains power to lead (Brown 2009).

Indeed, in the hands of Gramsci’s pre-eminent Australian biographer, Alistair Davidson, Lenin is a Jacobin and Gramsci is not (1974). Davidson upholds, however, the same understanding of  the place of What Is to Be Done? and of its argument as those who would subsume Gramsci: it is “the crucial text on the role of the party and the intellectuals” (Davidson 1977: 164).

Davidson’s discussion of Lenin’s work in this case concerns its lack of influence on Gramsci before 1922. Gramsci had become a supporter of Amadeo Bordiga’s leadership of the PCI. Moreover, Gramsci continued to hold that stance after moving to Moscow during 1922 and taking part in the Fourth Congress of the Communist International later that year. So when Davidson comes to discuss Gramsci’s break from Bordiga and adherence to Leninism from 1924, this is attributed to his capacity, once falling in love had secured his peace and serenity, to reconsider fascism. The break, Davidson tells us, was announced in a letter that said “simply that: ‘I have another concept of the party’” (1977: 207).

Yet Davidson does not discuss another, much more substantial, explanation in a letter Gramsci wrote a month later, in which he discussed first what he considered was Bordiga’s theory and then put forward his own point of view:

Amadeo ... thinks that the tactic of the International reflects the Russian situation, i.e. was born on the terrain of a backward and primitive capitalist civilisation. For him, this tactic is extremely voluntaristic and theatrical, because only with an extreme effort of will was it possible to obtain from the Russian masses a revolutionary activity which was not determined by the historical situation. He thinks that for the more developed countries of central and western Europe, this tactic is inadequate or even useless. In these countries, the historical mechanism functions according to all the approved schemes of Marxism. There exists the historical determinism which was lacking in Russia, and therefore the over-riding task must by the organisation of the party as an end in itself.

I think the situation is quite different. Firstly, because the political conception of the Russian communists was formed on an international and not on a national terrain. Secondly, because in central and western Europe the development of capitalism has not only determined the formation of the broad proletarian strata, but also – and as a consequence – has created the higher stratum, the labour aristocracy, with its appendages in the trade-union bureaucracy and the social-democratic groups. The determination, which in Russia was direct and drove the masses onto the streets for a revolutionary uprising, in central and western Europe is complicated by all these political super-structures, created by the greater development of capitalism. This makes the action of the masses slower and more prudent, and therefore requires of the revolutionary party a strategy and tactics more complex and long-term than those which were necessary for the Bolsheviks in the period between March and November 1917 (Gramsci 1924: 199-200).

Thus, Gramsci laid down the research he pursued in the Prison Notebooks about the party actively intervening in the complexities of advanced capitalist societies, not after his imprisonment, but at the beginning of 1924. This was only a year after his defence of Bordiga at the fourth Comintern congress. Furthermore, he did this within the framework of the theory of proletarian politics established by Lenin from 1914.

This leads me to propose two basic elements in a research project about the transformation in 1923 of Gramsci’s thinking on revolutionary politics and the revolutionary party.

First, Davidson’s explanation of the change in Gramsci’s perspective on the party and the proletarian struggle seems inadequate. The influence that working alongside the Russian revolutionaries had is not considered.

Second, the relationship between Gramsci’s mid-1920s discussion of the significance of the “labour aristocracy” and his discussion of the role of political superstructures in the Prison Notebooks can be considered. The latter are noted for their reintroduction of “civil society” into Marxism as a central concept, which might represent a break with the previous perspective. On the other hand, consideration of Gramsci’s work as if it were underpinned by concept of the “labour aristocracy” might, for example, resituate his discussion of “syndicalism”.

The overall result of a research project along these lines would be to ground our understanding of Gramsci’s thought more soundly, both historically and theoretically.

If you are interested in such a research project, contact me at


Brown, Trent (2009), “Gramsci and Hegemony”, Links International journal of Socialist Renewal. Accessed April 14, 2012 at

Davidson, Alistair (1977), Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography. Merlin: London.

Davidson, Alistair (1974), “Gramsci and Lenin, 1917-1922”, in Socialist Register: 1974. Merlin: London.

Gramsci, Antonio (1924), “Gramsci to Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Quintin Hoare (ed.) [1978], Antonio Gramsci: Selection from Political Writings (1921-1926). International Publishers: New York.

Harding, Neil (1981), Lenin's Political Thought, vol. 2. Macmillan: London. [Note: only the second volume of this work is readily available where I live, so I rely for this point on its introductory description of the first volume’s thesis.]

Le Blanc, Paul (2011), “Marxism and organisation”, Links International journal of Socialist Renewal. Accessed on April 14, 2012 at

Lenin, V.I. (1915). “The Collapse of the Second International”, in V.I. Lenin [1980], Collected Works, vol. 21. Progress Publishers: Moscow.

Lenin, V.I. (1913), “In Australia”, in: V.I. Lenin, V I [1980], Collected Works, vol. 19. Progress Publishers: Moscow.

Lenin, V.I. (1902), “What Is to Be Done?’ In V.I. Lenin [1986], Collected Works, vol. 5. Progress Publishers: Moscow.

Lih, Lars T. (2012), “Falling out over a Cliff”, Links International journal of Socialist Renewal. Accessed on April 14, 2012 at

Lih, Lars T. (2009).”‘Lenin’s Aggressive Unoriginality, 1914-1916”, Socialist Studies, vol. 5, no. 2: 90-112.

Lih, Lars T. (2007), “Lenin and the Great Awakening”, in Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek (eds), Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth. Duke University Press: London.

Thomas, Martin (2010), “The other shore of Gramsci’s bridge”, Links International journal of Socialist Renewal. Accessed on April 14, 2012 at


It seems to me that Jonathan Strauss's argument goes in a good direction, though I would like to raise a question about one point. He notes that I see Gramsci as being very much in the Leninist tradition, and he re-quotes my quotes from Lenin and Gramsci indicating similarities in their views on the interplay of organization and spontaneity. So far, so good.

He also writes the following: "The recent scholarship of Lars T. Lih (see, for example, Lih 2007, 2012), following that of Harding (1981), however, has shown the continuity of Lenin’s thoughts on organisation at the time of What Is to Be Done? with the experience of the German Social Democrats and these ideas’ subsequent development."

I am not sure what the word "however" is meant to imply, since I am inclined to agree with Lars Lih's view that Lenin saw his organizational perspectives as consistent with those of the German Social Democratic Party.

At the same time, I very much agree with Strauss's assertion that Lenin shifted his thinking on this last point under the impact of World War I. (I suspect Lih might also agree with that specific assertion, though he can speak for himself.) In any event, it is -- as Strauss goes on to say -- within this post-1914 orientation of Lenin that Gramsci's own Leninism crystallized. When he became a central leader of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci went on, in my opinion, to develop valuable innovations within this Leninist framework.

The all-too-common stress on presumed "differences" between Gramsci and Lenin strikes me as involving a serious misunderstanding of both. I think Gramsci's thought can best be studied and understood if his interaction with Russian revolutionaries, especially Lenin -- and also others in the early Communist International -- is part of the analysis. If Strauss and others carry out such an analysis, I believe fruitful contributions will be made to our understanding.


Thanks to Paul Le Blanc for his thoughtful comments. Overall, he expresses the essential aspects of my (very preliminary) notes on the relationship of Gramsci to Lenin and Leninism.

Le Blanc raises a question (which I guess is) about what I imply by contrasting his quotation of a particular comment by Lenin on spontaneity in response to the experience of the 1905 revolution and the identification by Lars T Lih of the continuities in What Is to Be Done?

In my experience, the Lenin passage that Le Blanc cites has typically been used to distinguish between What Is to Be Done? as a work by Lenin about 'the party and the intellectuals' and a supposed later recognition by Lenin of the potential of spontaneity in the workers' movement. That same reading of What Is to Be Done?, I pointed out in my notes, is employed by the dominant reading of Gramsci to argue for a contrast between a 'Jacobin' Lenin and Gramsci.

With regard to What Is to Be Done?, however, Lih has highlighted that, while the book involves a critique of spontaneity, the book is focused on criticising and rectifying the failure of the Russian revolutionary party and intellectuals to rise in what their work must be to the standard that the Russian working class had reached in its relatively spontaneous struggle.

Le Blanc indicates this is also his understanding of What Is to Be Done? So I have contextually misread his quotation of Lenin.

My contrast stands instead as a pointer to be aware that Lenin always recognised the necessity and importance, as well as the limitations, of the spontaneous element in proletarian class struggle.