Duncan Hallas


(April 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.47, April/May 1971, p.31.
Transcribed by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ANTONIO GRAMSCI. An Introduction to His Thought
A. Pozzolini
Pluto Press 90p

Many able intellectuals came to the Communist movement in the years immediately following 1917. A smaller number became centrally involved in the building and direction of the various Communist Parties. The disintegration of the Russian working class in 1918-22, the consequent growth of bureaucratic power, the emergence of the Stalin group as the dominant force in the bureaucratised party and the decisive victory of Stalinist totalitarianism in 1927-29, compelled them to chose between their allegiance to communism and their adherence to the Comintern.

Many, after supporting for a time the left opposition or one of the various “rightist” tendencies, abandoned Marxism. Some of them, like Boris Souvarine and Arthur Rosenberg, created out of their demoralisation theories which located the origins of Stalinism in the original sin of Marx and Lenin. Others, like Varga and Lukacs, devoted their considerable talents to justifying, in pseudo-Marxist phraseology, the current requirements of the despot in the Kremlin. A few, a very few, like Alfred Rosmer, avoided both desertion and prostitution. But these few were too isolated to do more than attempt to defend the authentic Marxist tradition with pitifully inadequate material means. With the outstanding exception of Trotsky’s analysis of the rise of Stalinism, development of Marxist theory virtually ceased for decades.

It is this fact that accounts for the exceptional interest in the work of Gramsci. Almost alone amongst the first rank thinkers of the movement in the early twenties, he was able to avoid confronting the issue of Stalinism. Arrested in 1926 by the Fascist police, he was to spend practically the whole of the rest of his life in prison, and his release in 1937, after years of chronic ill-health, was followed almost immediately by his death. Thus it was possible for his erstwhile comrade Togliatti to create something like a cult of Gramsci in the post-war Italian Communist Party (PCI) and for all those, like the New Left Review, who wish to straddle between Stalinism and Marxism to make him into a totem. Here was an original mind and a significant body of thought “uncontaminated” by the disagreeable debate about Trotskyism.

The present book is a compact and convenient summary of Gramsci’s life and work. How much of it is relevant and distinctive today? In two areas, the problems of the revolutionary party and the nature of ideology, Gramsci’s contribution is important.

The decisive experience that moulded his thinking on the party was the revolutionary upheaval in Northern Italy in 1919 and 1920, which started with the general strike against intervention in Russia in July 1919 and culminated in the mass occupation of the factories in September 1920. The political expression of the advanced workers was the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), a party which had affiliated to the Comintern soon after its foundation but which was anything but a Leninist party.

The dominant group in the party leadership, Serrati, Bombacci and Gennari – the so-called maximalists – combined revolutionary rhetoric with practical passivity. In their eyes the strikes and occupations were “demonstrative” not potentially revolutionary. Their attitude towards the considerable movements of peasants and agricultural workers – together an actual majority of the Italian people at that time – was both disastrous in itself and symptomatic of their basic unwillingness to develop a strategy to smash the state and seize power. They were, in Serrati’s opinion, “demogogic and petty-bourgeois movements aimed at entrancing the agricultural masses”! The contrast with Lenin’s position could hardly be more complete. Nor would the maximalists agree to the Comintern’s demand to expel the party’s right wing, the purely reformist tendency led by Turati and Modigliani. It was on this issue that the Executive Committee of the Comintern forced a split in the Italian Party.

The real tragedy was that the left wing – after January 1921 the PCI – was dominated by the sterile ultra-leftism of Amadeo Bordiga. Gramsci, along with Togliatti, Terracini and others of the New Order group, saw the need for an active, interventionist party, in Gramsci’s words “the party of the revolutionary proletariat which struggles for the advent of communist society through the Worker’s State, a cohesive, homogeneous party with its own doctrine, its own tactics and a strict, implacable discipline”.

This, of course, is orthodox Leninism and Pozzolini’s book makes it abundantly clear that Gramsci was indeed a Leninist and that those who represent him as some kind of spontaneist, on the basis of a few quotations torn bleeding from their context, profoundly misrepresent him. Yet Gramsci developed Lenin’s thought rather than merely echoing it. Consider Lenin’s terse comment on discipline with Gramsci on the same subject. “If you always insist on obedience,” said Lenin, “you will end up surrounded by obedient fools.” “Discipline”, wrote Gramsci, “is a continuous and permanent relationship between leaders and led that produces a common will.” How is this achieved? “Certainly not by a passive and supine acceptance of orders, or a the mechanical carrying’ out of an assignment (which however, will still be necessary on particular occasions, as for example in the midst of an action which had already been decided upon and begun) but as the conscious and lucid assimilation of the directive to be accomplished ...discipline is a necessary element of democratic order, of freedom.”

Gramsci started his struggle for a Leninist party very late in the day. He was preoccupied with the desperate need for working class unity against the Fascist menace which grew rapidly as the revolutionary mood subsided. It would have been hard enough, in the immediate aftermath of the split with the PSI, to achieve correct united front tactics even if the Bordigists had not dominated the PCI. In the event Gramsci’s success came too late. By the time he had won the party to his ideas (in 1924) it was already far too late. In his prison writings on this subject are distilled the experiences of the long struggle against phrase-mongering and ultra-leftism. They are amongst the most valuable material on the subject available to the revolutionary left.

Gramsci’s sensitive and important writings on ideology need less emphasis. This is a less controversial area and therefore one in which centrists and even liberal Stalinists are able to represent Gramsci’s ideas without too much distortion. It is well represented in the selections given by Pozzolini whose book ought to be on the shelf of everyone seriously interested in Marxist theory.


Last updated on 9.2.2008