March , 2019

People Aur Politics

A liberation zone for democratic rights, multiculturalism, international brotherhood and peace.

Just as the temperature of ‘security threat’ slowly declines in Somalia, it rises in other ...
Gilbert Achcar is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental ...
For the first time in seventeen years, the U.S. government has shut down over a ...
Paul Clark, Youth Culture in China (Cambridge University Press, 2012), £18.99 Paul Clark is a professor ...
KAMPIAL, Indonesia - To the sounds of a gamelan orchestra, white-dressed Balinese pay ritual homage ...
Finding Oneself in the Other Edited by Michael Otsuka, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 2012. 240pp., ...
In 1932, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein conducted a correspondence subsequently published under the title ...
Less than a year ago, when Tahrir Square was clogged by nothing more dangerous than ...
The upheaval in Nicaragua that lasted from April 18 to April 21 and the repression ...
Hannah Arendt: A Critical Introduction Pluto Press, London, 2011. 312pp., £19.99 pb Reviewed by Piotr Stalmaszczyk Piotr Stalmaszczyk ...

Archive for the ‘Marxian Theory’ Category

In Defence of Bolshevism By Max Shachtman

Posted by admin On March - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on In Defence of Bolshevism By Max Shachtman


In Defence of Bolshevism
By Max Shachtman
Phoenix Press, 2018 · 311 pages · $15.00

–Review by Paul Le Blanc

This is an important work on Lenin and the Bolshevik tradition. While many have been profoundly impressed by the valuable work of Lars Lih in Rediscovering Lenin (2006), Max Shachtman was articulating and documenting many of the same points in the late 1930s, through the 1940s and 1950s, and into the early 1960s. His defense of Bolshevism was articulated over and over, with facts and citations buttressed with brilliant turns of phrase, sometimes with entertaining (even hilarious) flourishes—and often with challenging, inspiring, illuminating insights.

“The Russian revolution of 1917, which Lenin led, [was] a socialist revolution that established a genuine workers’ government,” Shachtman argued in a 1957 letter to Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas. and In the years leading up to that revolution Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades were animated by the conviction that “socialism can and will be attained only by the fullest realization of democracy.” Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union had not “carried out the ideal and principles of the socialist revolution to a logical conclusion” but instead had “betrayed and destroyed it,” as he put it several years earlier, and “if we defend the Bolsheviks today, it is in the interest of historical objectivity but also because we remain loyal to the emancipating fight for socialism.”

Political background

The editor of this volume is Sean Matgamna, leader of a small British group associated with the publication Workers Liberty, whose perspectives are elaborated in a lengthy introduction. His group adheres to a theory that Shachtman developed upon breaking with Leon Trotsky in 1940, viewing the Soviet Union as a new form of class society, what Shachtman and his cothinkers called bureaucratic collectivism. The importance of this volume, however, transcends such matters, and has more to do with Shachtman’s earlier convictions—which remained within him as a powerful residue through his later years.

Shachtman began his political life in the Young People’s Socialist League, youth group of the Socialist Party of America, in the glory days of Eugene V. Debs. As with many Eastern European immigrant youth of the time, he was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and he became a leader of the Young Communist League in the early 1920s, going on to help James P. Cannon create the International Labor Defense (ILD). The ILD defended the rights of all working-class and left-wing activists of that time, most notably the immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Cannon concluded, in the late 1920s, that the perspectives of Leon Trotsky represented a genuine alternative to the bureaucratic and authoritarian degeneration of the Communist movement. Shachtman joined with him, and both, along with handfuls of others, were expelled from the US Communist Party. Shachtman began this phase of his political life as one of the central leaders of the revolutionary socialist current associated with Trotsky, with whom he collaborated closely throughout the 1930s.

Among Shachtman’s contributions during the volatile Depression years was his editorship of the theoretical journal New International; two of the articles in this volume date from that time. One is an incisively critical review of a memoir written by Angelica Balabanoff, who had played an important role in the early Communist International before joining the anti-Communist wing of the socialist movement. The other is a brilliant discussion of the relationship of two outstanding revolutionaries of the twentieth century, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. The balance of the items in this volume is drawn from the period after Shachtman’s break with Trotsky, but deal mostly with matters around which he was in harmony with his former teacher.

Shachtman’s later political orientation evolved in a social-democratic direction, ending in a 1958 merger into the Socialist Party of America. He was a mentor to an important younger layer of US socialists, including Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin. Such protégés had a powerful impact on social struggles and political thought on the left in the 1960s. Shachtman never renounced his earlier pro-Bolshevik beliefs, but they were now refracted by a political evolution at odds with his earlier revolutionary standpoint. In Left Americana I recall:

When one heard Shachtman explain himself [as I did in 1968], one heard passionately revolutionary syllables forming stolidly reformist words. Uncompromising notions of class struggle became inseparable from a commitment to the far-from-radical officialdom of the AFL-CIO and to its place in the Democratic Party, and the defense of socialism from Stalinist betrayal added up to an alignment with the US government in the cause of Cold War anti-Communism—all with a Marxist flourish.

Despite this evolution, the analysis, scholarship, and insights in Shachtman’s pro-Bolshevik essays are worth engaging with. In illuminating what actually happened in history, Shachtman was being true to revolutionary cause—even while veering from it in his latter-day orientation.

Shachtman’s defense of Bolshevism

In contrast to Shachtman, the former Communist educator Bertram D. Wolfe—who became an increasingly conservative anti-Communist propagandist for the US State Department—devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to attacking and slandering the Bolshevik tradition. Shachtman’s critique of Wolfe’s influential work on Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the Bolshevik party,Three Who Made a Revolution, is presented in abridged form. Missing from the substantial fragment is the apt characterization of “Wolfe’s style . . . the polite mockery, the faint air of condescension, the misplaced irony, the elderly skepticism toward the Russian Revolution and its leaders which is so fashionable nowadays.” But we do find in this book reference to Wolfe’s “innuendo, clouded allusions, grunts, grimaces, pursed lips, winks and nods” and a pointed suggestion that Wolfe was “just a little … careless with his innuendos.”

Shachtman focuses attention on two sentences thrown out in passing—“Just in passing!” Shachtman thunders—containing “more insight than can be found in any two chapters of Wolfe’s book.” Here are the sentences:

Nineteen five and nineteen seventeen, the heroic years when the machine was unable to contain the flood of overflowing life, would bring Trotsky to the fore as the flaming tribune of the people, would show Lenin’s ability to rise above the confining structure of his dogmas, and would relegate Stalin, the machine-man, to the background. But no people can live forever at fever heat and when that day was over and Lenin was dead, the devoted machine-man’s day would come.

“Then why the title Three Who Made a Revolution?” asks Shachtman. “The facts presented by Wolfe show this to be a falsification and the above quotation confirms it. The title he gives his book is therefore utterly misleading.” He concludes: “It would of course be very awkward to load a book with a title like Two Who Made a Revolution and One Who Made a Counter-Revolution, but one merit it would have: it would be accurate.” Stalinists insist on a continuity of Lenin and Stalin to enhance the latter’s authority, and anti-Communists do it to discredit Lenin.

Confronting widespread accusations of Lenin’s intolerance, Shachtman observed: “Nine times out of ten, Lenin’s ‘intolerance’ consisted, for the opponents, in the fact that he refused to accept their point of view on a question.” Pushing hard against the notion that Lenin’s Bolshevik organization was authoritarian, he insisted that “the Bolshevik movement had, on the whole, more genuine democracy in its organization, more freedom of opinion and expression, a freer and healthier internal life, than at least nine-tenths of the other socialist or trade-union organizations of Europe,” and that “the hideous monolithism of Stalin’s regime was entirely unknown—it was not even dreamed of—among the Bolsheviks. Political tendencies were formed without let or hindrance, and if they dissolved it was not under compulsion of any kind. . . . Lenin’s collected works, which were composed largely of open ‘inner-party’ polemics and the files of a dozen different factional papers and pamphlets provide inundating evidence of this rich, free and open party life.”

Contested terrain

Most items in this volume emerged from the context of debates on the left. Pride of place is devoted to “Under the Banner of Marxism.” This is aimed at Ernest Erber, a prominent member of the Workers Party who in 1948 announced his withdrawal from revolutionary politics with a lengthy critique of Lenin’s theory of the state and of the Bolsheviks’ 1917 decision to take power. Shachtman employs bell, book, and candle—not to mention lightning and thunder, peppered with humor and passion—in defending both. Why did Leninism give way to Stalinism? Shachtman responds:

Exactly ninety-nine per cent of the critics of Bolshevism answer the question this way, at bottom: The Russian workers lost power because they took power. Stalinism (the destruction of the Russian workers’ power) followed ineluctably from the seizure of power by the proletariat and Lenin’s refusal to surrender this power to the bourgeois democracy. Exactly ninety-nine per cent of the revolutionary Marxists answer the question in this way, at bottom: The Russian workers lost power because the workers of other countries failed to take power.

Particularly fascinating is the substantial summary of a 1951 debate at the University of Chicago between Shachtman and Alexander Kerensky, exiled leader of the provisional government that Lenin and the Bolsheviks ousted in 1917. Kerensky, employing a quote from the anarchist Proudhon against Marx, claimed that “Communism is nothing more than inequality, subjugation, and slavery,” characterizing his 1917 struggle with the Bolsheviks as “not a fight between capitalism and socialism, but between freedom and slavery.” Kerensky concluded: “Stalin is the most able, most talented disciple of Lenin.” In contrast, Shachtman insisted:

The road out of the blind alley into which society is being driven more and more, lies in the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy receives its clarity, purpose and guarantee in the struggle for socialism; the struggle for socialism lies in the hands of the working class—the beast of burden, the despised of the earth—whose will to victory was forever underlined by their first great revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

This perspective—compromised in some of what Shachtman later did, but never repudiated by him—is essential to the revolutionary Marxist tradition. Here we can find not only Shachtman at his best, but also a diverse lot of others: Tony Cliff, C. L. R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Ernest Mandel, Hal Draper, James P. Cannon, Leon Trotsky, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, and many more.  Growing numbers of socialists, today and tomorrow, may find something of value in what this tradition has to offer.

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On fire: A dialectical heritage-Jason Devine  

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 2019 Comments Off on On fire: A dialectical heritage-Jason Devine  


February 24, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Heraclitus has come down to us as the philosopher of Πάντα ῥεῖ, of the view that everything flows. This immediately calls to mind the image of water. Indeed, a saying of his that most commonly attends discussions of his philosophy is the following: “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.”[1] However, this can only lead to false impressions. For fire plays a far greater and more fundamental role for Heraclitus, as both an element and a metaphor, than water ever did. Fire expresses and is the eternal alteration between life and death, movement and rest, between uniformity and diversity viz. what has come to be known as the dialectic.

It should be recalled that Hegel consciously built his system on the basis of Heraclitus. As he once famously stated, “there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic.”[2] In taking over the latter’s dialectic he also absorbed his notion of fire. But the dialectic does not remain still. Not merely do its forms change, but the human comprehension of the dialectic varies as well. Thus we find Hegel’s dialectic more concrete compared to Heraclitus, while fire was reduced to a subsidiary function within the totality of Hegel’s system. And yet fire and the dialectic remained inextricably bound together.

Finally, in considering Marx, we find yet another alteration in the conception of fire and dialectics. Here Marx’s materialist outlook is an advance on the idealism of Hegel, and yet also represents, on one level, a return to the materialism of Heraclitus. This is a true concretisation of the dialectic. And yet, unlike the previous two, fire does not play an important conceptual role for Marx. Rather it sinks to the level of a mere metaphor for the dialectic of human activity. By examining the development of the notion of fire in the dialectics of Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marx light can be cast on the essence of their dialectical thought. More specifically, when we look at the continuity and discontinuity of the imagery of fire across these three great thinkers, we can see how they dialectically passed the torch of the dialectic as a tool of enlightenment.

According to Hegel, the history of philosophy is the dialectical progression of human thought. Since the principle by which this development occurs is the dialectic, this history is also a history of the dialectic itself. As such the importance of Heraclitus is that he took “the dialectic itself as principle.”[3] For Hegel the latter is an unfolding totality, one which moves from the abstract to the concrete. As he stated in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy:
The advance requisite and made by Heraclitus is the progression from Being as the first immediate thought, to the category of Becoming as the second. This is the first concrete, the Absolute, as in it the unity of opposites. Thus with Heraclitus the philosophic Idea is to be met with in its speculative form; the reasoning of Parmenides and Zeno is abstract understanding.[4]

Here the logical and the historical are united.[5] Everything before Heraclitus is seen as abstract, one-sided, merely preparatory. Hence he and his philosophy were viewed by Hegel as both temporally and logically subsequent to the Eleatics. He echoed the same sentiments later on when he stated that “As the first concrete determination of thought, becoming is also the first genuine one. In the history of philosophy it is the system of Heraclitus that corresponds to this stage of the logical Idea.”[6] For Hegel, then, Heraclitus is the first real step forward in the development of human thought. This he accomplished by positing the dialectic, and thereby concretising previous thinking. It is no wonder then that, as noted above, Hegel held him in such high regard. Nor can there be any doubt of the importance which a study of Heraclitus holds for understanding Hegel’s method and system.

Marx and Engels, unsurprisingly, both studied Heraclitus but only ever wrote about him in passing.[7] His importance to them was less theoretical and more so historical. This is not to say that they did not esteem his philosophy. As Marx wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle upon receiving the latter’s book on Heraclitus: “I have always felt a great TENDERNESS for this philosopher, whom I prefer above all the Ancients save Aristotle.”[8] Engels, for his part, argued that Heraclitus was an important philosophical forerunner:
When we consider and reflect upon nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away. This primitive, naive but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.[9]

In light of Engels’ statement that the “old Greek philosophers were all born natural dialecticians,” this can only mean that, similar to Hegel, he held Heraclitus to be a founder of the dialectic.[10] But a distinction should be noted here. According to Hegel the importance of Heraclitus is the place he holds in the progression of the Absolute Idea i.e. the former interpreted the latter idealistically. Engels, however, understood Heraclitus to be an early materialist philosopher and, therefore, represented an initial advance in humanity’s conceptual grasp of material reality. While it is true that neither Marx nor Engels produced a systematic study of Heraclitus, this cannot obviate the powerful influence the latter had on philosophy in general, and dialectical logic in particular.[11]

The exact details of the life of Heraclitus are not known. The information that exists is, like his philosophy, fragmentary. What can be assured, as Robinson has remarked, is that Heraclitus “lived during the period spanning the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the fifth century BC.”[12] Further, he was an aristocrat and lived in the Greek port city of Ephesus. The latter was a place of great wealth, serving as a commercial hub in the ancient world. It was here that Heraclitus is said to have written a single book entitled On Nature, although there is debate as to whether this is true or not.[13] Whatever he actually wrote, all that has come down to us are fragments which, a careful reading reveals, have common threads binding them together.[14]

In fragment 30 Heraclitus lays bare the nature of reality, stating that “The cosmos, the same for all, none of the gods nor of humans has made, but it always was, and is, and shall be: an ever-living fire, being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures.”[15] Heraclitus’ meaning here can be taken as both literal and symbolic. First, he is asserted that everything is literally made of fire as it is the basic element of reality. This, therefore, includes the other basic elements: “The turnings of fire are, first, sea; and of sea, half is earth and half fiery waterspout…Earth is poured out as sea, and is measured according to the same ratio it was before it became earth.”[16] While stating that the different elements transition between each other, his assertion is that fire is the primary element which underlies the others and to which they return: “Fire lives the death of earth, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of air, earth that of water.”[17] Hence a cycle is formed with fire being both the beginning and end viz. the entire universe is an infinite ring.

Secondly, therefore, Heraclitus’ also means fire in the symbolic sense of the continual flux and change of fire as it burns: its form is always altering and yet it remains the same. This constant change is not chaotic however, as his mention of measures imply that this movement is ordered, structured, and lawful. In what is presumed to be the introduction to his work Heraclitus wrote that “This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it…all things come to be in accordance with this logos.”[18] He stated further that “it is necessary to follow this what is common. But although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.”[19] What is the logos? It is fire and as the latter takes many forms, we should not be surprised to find the logos under different names. Thus “All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as good for gold and gold for goods.”[20] This exchange is the turning between opposites, so that “Fire is want and satiety,” or, in other words “God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger.”[21] The logos is Fire, and Fire is God: the whole of existence.

This is shown further in fragment 10, where Heraclitus argues that “Things taken together are whole and not whole, being brought together and brought apart, in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity, and out of a unity all things.”[22] Fire, then, stands for the process of the unity and division of opposites, or what Engels referred to as the “interpenetration of opposites.”[23] This all-embracing process determines everything: “War is the father of all and the king of all, and some he shows as gods, others as humans, some he makes slaves, others free.”[24] Hence, war is fire and fire is war: “For fire will advance and judge and convict all things.”[25] Furthermore, chaos is order and order is chaos: “It is necessary to know that war is common and justice is strife and that all things happen in accordance with strife and necessity.”[26] The lawful order of reality, then, arises out of the eternal flux of its process. As Heraclitus wrote, “The most beautiful arrangement is a pile of things poured out at random.”[27] Chance and necessity, life and death, unity and division: everything is a universal alteration.

It is clear from the above that when Heraclitus made references to God he did not mean so in either a monotheistic or polytheistic sense. No his philosophy was an ancient materialism: if not atheistic, then at least pantheistic. Certainly, according to the logic of his thought, there is reason to believe that his whole point in referring to the logos by different names was intended to elucidate the unity amid diversity. It was also likely intended to aid the understanding of those who read his work by shining a light on popular ignorance. And this is why fire best represented the whole matter: for fire is always moving, always altering, and yet remaining the same: “Changing, it rests.”[28] The creation of fire arises from destruction and in destroying it creates.[29] This means, further, that this eternal process of change is self-regulating, as is implicit in fragment 30 quoted above. In other words, there is an inner logic to reality i.e. precisely the logos. The logic of Heraclitus, then, is dialectical and its most lucid expression is fire.

In leaving Heraclitus and turning to Hegel, we find a number of dialectical transitions. For example, fire remains a symbol of the dialectic, but its conceptualisation differs viz. the framework shifts from a materialist pantheism to absolute idealism. Further, where the dialectic is implicit in the thinking of Heraclitus, it is explicit in Hegel. In fact, we can characterise this development as the move from ancient to modern dialectics. From a Marxian perspective, then, Hegel represents both a progression and a retrogression compared to Heraclitus. In order to properly appreciate the historical significance of the former, his relationship with the latter must be illuminated and cognised.

Hegel, in the second part of his Philosophy of Nature, “Inorganic Physics,” discussed the four elements of air, fire, water, and earth. As these follow upon the elementary particles, which, for Hegel, is a moment of unity, of identity, the four elements therefore represent a moment of diversity, the splitting into opposition of the original self-identity. He classifies the four into a similar structure viz. air as a phase of universal, abstract unity, fire and water as a phase of particular, mediated antithesis, and earth as individualised identity. Though the elements differ amongst themselves in their concreteness, each taken alone is abstract as opposed to their concrete unity:
The individual identity, by which the different elements in terms of both their difference from each other and their unity with each other are bound, is a dialectic which constitutes the physical life of the earth, the meteorological process. It is in this process alone that the elements, as dependent moments, have their existence, being generated in it and posited as existent.[30]

The Earth itself, then, is the totality, the integration of the elements and hence is the moment of a self-unity. What matters here is not the scientific basis or lack thereof of Hegel’s writing. Rather it is the very structure, the logic of his conception. As Thomas Posch has argued “it may thus be said that all categories developed in the Science of Logic have their respective counterparts in the Philosophy of Nature (and also in the Philosophy of Spirit); moreover, the succession of the logical categories and of their respective counterparts is roughly the same.”[31] This can also be said for his History of Philosophy. In other words, the question here concerns Hegel’s dialectical method.

Within this general context, Hegel wrote the following passage about fire itself, and which can only be considered Heraclitean:
The elements of the antithesis are (a) being for itself not the indifferent being of rigidity, but rather being for itself posited in individuality as a moment, and therefore material selfhood, light identical to heat: fire. This element is materialised time, absolutely restless and consuming, and causes the self-consumption of the subsisting body as it conversely destroys the body through its external approach. In consuming another, fire consumes itself.[32]

When Hegel stated that “fire…is materialised time,” he was referring to Heraclitus, especially to the latter’s “ever-living fire.” Fire, for both thinkers, is the continual flux, the constant change of reality. The manifold of appearances are always altering, but the essence remains the same viz. the permanent diremption of unity, its re-establishment via the fusion of its oppositions, and the eventual self-division.[33] It should be recalled that Heraclitus was not conscious of this principle and thus presented the dialectic abstractly or, as I stated above, implicitly. Accordingly, only with Hegel was it made explicit, or further concretised. That is to say, the dialectic was shown to be not a mere dance between unity and division, between immediate and mediate, but, more specifically, the movement from the abstract to the concrete, the unfolding of the totality.

Yet the reference to time in relation to fire does not refer only to constant transmutations in general. Hegel, in his section on Heraclitus, in his History of Philosophy, provides an overview and systematic reading of the latter’s philosophy by referring to most of the fragments. There he wrote that “Understanding the abstract process as time, Heraclitus said: ‘Time is the first corporeal existence,’ as Sextus (adv. Math. X. 231, 232) puts it…Corporeal here means abstract sensuousness; time, as the first sensuous existence, is the abstract representation of process.”[34] Since time is the abstract expression of process, therefore fire, as a more concrete expression of the latter, is materialised time. And we can see the same formulation in the Philosophy of Nature: “Time, as the negative unity of being outside of itself, is just as thoroughly abstract, ideal being: being which, since it is, is not, and since it is not, is.”[35]

What, though, exactly is this process? To answer the question it must be emphasised that Hegel did not believe that Heraclitus actually held that fire was truly the basic principle. Rather he stressed that while some ancient authorities argued that fire was primary, and others held other elements to have that status, he denied all four of them that role. Thus he wrote that
Heraclitus could no longer, like Thales, express water, air or anything similar as an absolute principle—he could no longer do so in the form of a primeval element from which the rest proceeds—because he thought of Being as identical with non-being, or the infinite Notion; thus the existent, absolute principle cannot with him come forth as a definite and actual thing such as water, but must be water in alteration, or as process only.[36]
Hegel here argued, quite logically, that the basic principle for Heraclitus was the dialectic, the flux of opposites, and therefore could not be a sole element. Heraclitus had said that “We step into and do not step into the same rivers. We are and are not.”[37] This is what Hegel phrases as the identity of being and non-being. Yet Hegel’s argument was undoubtedly an instance of his making explicit what was implicit in Heraclitus. Indeed, he went on to remark that
To Heraclitus the truth is to have grasped the essential being of nature, i.e. to have represented it as implicitly infinite, as process in itself; and consequently it is evident to us that Heraclitus could not say that the primary principle is air, water, or any such thing. They are not themselves process, but fire is process; and thus he maintains fire to be the elementary principle, and this is the real form of the Heraclitean principle, the soul and substance of the nature-process. Fire is physical time, absolute unrest, absolute disintegration of existence, the passing away of the ‘other,’ but also of itself; and hence we can understand how Heraclitus, proceeding from his fundamental determination, could quite logically call fire the Notion of the process.[38]
To Hegel, fire is both a symbol and a physical manifestation of the higher, single principle: the unity and opposition of Being and non-being. Being is what it is because it is not non-being, and vice versa. However, being inextricably bound, being mutually dependent, they are not different, but the same. Hence, instead of being two poles standing apart and structuring each other, it is actually a self-opposition, a self-determining. As there is no determination by an external other, hence finitude, but rather a self-relation, it is thus an infinite relation.[39]

As we can see, Hegel repeated Heraclitus but not exactly. More particularly, Hegel, aside from his idealism, held that no element could predominate among others. Where he did repeat Heraclitus, following the nature of the dialectic, was in the idea of eternal change. Time continues on and does not stop. However, we cannot touch or see time: it is immaterial. Fire, then, as ever changing, ever consuming, is a materialisation of time, and therefore perfectly exemplifies the negativity of the dialectic, the unity and division of Being and non-being.[40] Hegel explicitly made this the bedrock of his system:
This universal principle is better characterized as Becoming, the truth of Being; since everything is and is not, Heraclitus hereby expressed that everything is Becoming. Not merely does origination belong to it, but passing away as well; both are not independent, but identical. It is a great advance in thought to pass from Being to Becoming, even if, as the first unity of opposite determinations, it is still abstract…This philosophy is thus not one past and gone; its principle is essential, and is to be found in the beginning of my Logic, immediately after Being and Nothing.[41]
With this passage Hegel not only gave a brief overview of the beginning of his Science of Logic, but he also disclosed a most compact summary of his dialectics. Further, in grasping the latter as the foundation, it should be quite comprehensible that we find Hegel’s method and categories replicated across his system. It is an organic whole and each part represents a possible entry point for grasping the totality; all are interrelated.[42] Therefore, any one of Hegel’s works can be taken as a means to light the way in studying his entire philosophy.

In leaving Hegel and advancing towards Marx, we again find a materialist understanding of the dialectic. But this was not a simple repetition of the materialism of Heraclitus: the dialectic is not a circle, but a spiral.[43] Indeed, Engels argued in 1859 that an aspect of Marx’s “establishing the dialectical method” after Hegel, was divesting it “of its idealist wrappings.”[44] More specifically this involved the “elaboration of a world outlook that was more materialist than any previous one.”[45] Marx’s scientific socialism, therefore, recognised the materiality of existence, but not in the form of a basic element. Fire, as will be seen, plays no key role in Marx’s thought. Rather, it serves as a symbol for the foundation of his dialectical logic: labour, practical human activity.

The identification of fire and the dialectic was replicated by Marx, but the form this took changed over the course of his career. For example, in 1841, while a Young Hegelian, he was working on his doctoral dissertation. Here he provided a systematic Hegelian reading of Epicurus. Marx wrote that, “Time, on the other hand, is the fire of essence, eternally consuming appearance, and stamping it with dependence and non-essence.”[46] In view of the analysis above it is clear that there is nothing specifically “Marxist” in this formulation: time as an eternal process, as an all-consuming perpetual fire which expresses the dialectical flux between essence and appearance. At this moment it could not have been otherwise; so that, although Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation under the sign of atheism, he was repeating the form and content of the Hegelian reading of Heraclitus.[47]

Years later, in 1857, amidst the heat of his intensive studies in political economy, Marx wrote in his notebooks that “Labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time.”[48] The dialectic of fire, as perpetual transformation, as destructive creation-creative destruction, still persists, but not as the basic building block of reality, nor as an expression of the Absolute Spirit coming to consciousness. No, here it stands as a metaphor for the open-ended power of human agency. It is no longer a mystical logic, but the logic of labour.[49] As Marx wrote just before the above line:
The transformation of the material by living labour, by the realization of living labour in the material – a transformation which, as purpose, determines labour and is its purposeful activation (a transformation which does not only posit the form as external to the inanimate object, as a mere vanishing image of its material consistency) – thus preserves the material in a definite form, and subjugates the transformation of the material to the purpose of labour.[50]
Reality is in a permanent flux: the only constant is change. To describe this unstable condition as an eternal, self-regulating fire can only be done symbolically. Nor does the pre-ordained logic of God’s plan guide the hands of humanity. It is not by some higher will that humanity changes its environment, determines its existence, but rather it is only according to its own agency. It is human activity that is self-determining, self-regulating, self-creating, self-structuring, etc. Human existence is social and this social world is the product of labour, of the collective re-shaping of the natural world over time. Labour is the practical blaze that clears away the past and opens a way for the future.

The theoretical transition point in Marx’s conception of the dialectic was in 1844. It was in that year that Marx was busy with a number of studies and among which he began, but did not finish, a critique of Hegel’s philosophy. In his opinion,
The outstanding achievement of Hegel’s Phänomenologie and of its final outcome, the dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle, is thus first that Hegel conceives the self-creation of man as a process, conceives objectification as loss of the object, as alienation and as transcendence of this alienation; that he thus grasps the essence of labour and comprehends objective man – true, because real man – as the outcome of man’s own labour.[51]
For Hegel the scope of the human drama is a historical process of development, of self-becoming. Humanity, the subject, is faced with an alien world, the object: it struggles with it, fights with it, alters it. Through the alienation process it comes to see itself in the object, to recognise itself in it. Humanity comes to being, comes to self-recognition, by overcoming the alienation viz. subject and object become one. Hence Marx goes on to argue that “Hegel’s standpoint is that of modern political economy. He grasps labour as the essence of man – as man’s essence which stands the test: he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labour. Labour is man’s coming-to-be for himself within alienation, or as alienated man.”[52] By “modern political economy” Marx here especially referred to the work of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, and David Ricardo. But “modern political economy” at that time was, of course, bourgeois political economy and, hence, trapped within the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production: increasingly it was degenerating into vulgar economics, moving away from its original scientific insights and falling into pure ideology.[53]

Labour is alienated under capitalism viz. it takes place in the context of a class-divided division of labour where, consequently, the average products of labour, and labour itself, are privately bought and sold on the market.[54] Classical political economy takes this fact to be timeless, as essential to labour itself. Hegel, despite his great historical grasp, accepted this premise, and his understanding of labour was consequently itself alienated. Therefore, Marx continued,
The only labour which Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental labour. Therefore, that which constitutes the essence of philosophy – the alienation of man who knows himself, or alienated science thinking itself – Hegel grasps as its essence; and in contradistinction to previous philosophy he is therefore able to combine its separate aspects, and to present his philosophy as the philosophy.[55]
Hegel’s achievement here was also his failure. The same alienated understanding which allowed him to grasp the essence of philosophy and the development of humanity, also meant that he “fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself.”[56] Thus, for Hegel, the coming-to-be of humanity is actually the coming to be of God viz. the identity of subject and object is determined on an idealist basis. This is why Marx’s point about the “essence of philosophy” being “alienated science thinking itself” is key. Marx was moving away from philosophy and struggling for a scientific method and outlook, towards what he termed the “new” materialism.[57] This was achieved the following year with the writing of his theses on Feuerbach and the German Ideology. It was precisely the historical focus on human practical activity that constituted the basis of scientific socialism.[58]

Labour, however, does not just produce our food and clothing, build housing, etc. It also creates our social relations and provides the basis for human thought. Marx discussed this fact in the course of a critical attack on Proudhon, which made in an 1846 letter to Pavel Annekov. Written just before he began work on his Poverty of Philosophy, this is one of the most important pieces of Marx’s oeuvre, and one that remains, even today, woefully under-read and understudied by Marxists. As Marx argued:
M. Proudhon has very well grasped the fact that men produce cloth, linen, silks, and it is a really great merit to have grasped such a small matter! But he has not grasped that, according to their productive forces, these men also produce the social relations amid which they manufacture cloth and linen. Still less has he understood that men, who produce their social relations in accordance with their material productivity, also produce ideas, categories, that is to say the abstract ideal expressions of these same social relations. Thus the categories are no more eternal than the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products.[59]
This is the material, historical basis for the growth of human consciousness, of knowledge, of what Marx termed the ideal. However, this is still a generalisation and does not address the specifics of how this process develops. On this question Aristotle had already provided an essentially correct argument. According to him, it was through the experience of repeatedly perceiving different phenomena that general concepts began to emerge in our consciousness. As this process was repeated and compounded, even more abstract and general concepts, expressing the universal essence of the variety were and are formed.[60] Yet, in light of Marx, the weakness of Aristotle’s position here is obvious: he treats the development of concepts or categories, as simply a result of the repetition of perception. But, as we have seen, humans are no passive observers; rather they are active agents. Ergo, it is through the reiteration of practical activity and its comprehension i.e., the process of active abstraction, that knowledge arises.[61]

Further, it should be recalled that the history of humanity is one of class struggles. With the growth of the class-divided division of labour, theory and practice are increasingly specialised and relatively divided. The performance of mental and physical labour tends to become the purview of specific social groups. More specifically, sections of the ruling class become focused on the systematisation of abstract thought. Aristotle had already rightly noted that “those who are in a position which places them above toil have stewards who attend to their households while they occupy themselves with philosophy or with politics.”[62] Or, in the words of the German Marxist August Thalheimer, “As Aristotle said, leisure is the premise of philosophy.”[63] Of course though, Aristotle was not a Marxist: he was not making a historical analysis of the development of society. Rather, he was simply describing how society functioned in his time. In order to understand the rise of philosophy we need to look elsewhere.

August Thalheimer provided the first popular Marxist analysis of the development of abstract thought. He argued that there were “universal material conditions for the development of philosophy and science and for the disintegration of the popular religion in ancient times.”[64] Of these he listed “the first in importance” as “the advance in the development of the productive capacity, in the productiveness of the economy, in the mastery of nature” which was “distinctly connected with the development of private property and a commodity economy.”[65] Continuing on he argued that the “second and closely related condition” was that “with the development of a commodity economy in which merchant capital and money capital grow up alongside of the priestly class and the landowners, a new class of people appears who enjoy free time, who have leisure to develop themselves and to dedicate themselves to art and science.”[66]

As an example of this historical dialectic, Thalheimer referred to Greece, for it was there that “the development of philosophy and natural science is closely related to the development of Greek commercial cities on the coast of Asia Minor, where, as early as the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., there emerged a materialistic viewpoint opposed to the priesthood.”[67] The cities which Thalheimer emphasised were “Miletus and Ephesus” and which stood “culturally and economically, far above contemporary Greek development.”[68] The intellectual revolution seen here was not only based on the leisure afforded the wealthier classes, but also on
the fact that through the growth of commercial shipping the intellectual horizon of these Greeks of Asia Minor was tremendously widened. These first Greek merchants traversed the whole Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, etc., with their merchant ships. They came to know many strange peoples, religions, manners, and customs.[69]

Ephesus, of course, was the home of Heraclitus.[70] And so, underlying the abstract fire of the latter, we find the concrete fire of human practical activity. Yet this is only one aspect of the question. The full scope of the practical basis of philosophy, of systematised abstract thought, can and should be extended. To be more specific, while Thalheimer built upon Aristotle’s second insight into the formation of philosophy, the first was later developed by the English Marxist George Thomson. He argued that the extensive development of the commodity value-form was directly reflected in growth of philosophy in ancient Greece. For example, in regards to Heraclitus he asserted that the “concept of a self-regulating cycle of perpetual transformations of matter is the ideological reflex of an economy based on commodity production.”[71] How exactly though? In Thomson’s words,
civilised thought has been dominated from the earliest times down to the present day by what Marx called the fetishism of commodities, that is, the ‘false consciousness’ generated by the social relations of commodity production. In early Greek philosophy we see this ‘false consciousness’ gradually emerging and imposing on the world categories of thought derived from commodity production, as though these categories belonged, not to society, but to nature. The Parmenidean One, together with the later idea of ‘substance,’ may therefore be described as a reflex or projection of the substance of exchange value.[72]
Thomson’s argument here is a stellar contribution to the Marxist critique of philosophical history. Yet, though essentially correct, it contains an incorrect formulation. That is, Thomson here, and elsewhere, makes the formation of philosophical categories and systems the automatic product of the economy. But human thought is not mechanically produced by the impact of the social environment. No, the growth of knowledge is an example of the power of human activity. Therefore, it was not merely the surplus product produced by slave labour, or the new experiences of the rising class of merchants, which aided the development of Greek philosophy, but also the theoretical examination, the active cognition of the repeated acts of commodity exchange developing in the bosom of the slave economy.[73] This is precisely the historical basis for the parallel which Lenin noted between the commodity and the syllogism.[74]

This short study on the history of dialectical logic began with the fire of Heraclitus, progressed to Hegel’s system, and finally moved on to Marx’s method and outlook. We now find that we have returned to Heraclitus, for it was never any sort of fire which set the practical and intellectual world in motion, but rather the dialectic of human practical activity, or what Marx in his earlier period called labour. The dialectic of humanity, then, is the materialisation of the latter. But in this logic, history is not automatic: it is consciously made by humans:
The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity…The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals.[75]
These “real individuals” are not automatons, they have consciousness. So that their activity, whether fully understood or not, is always conscious. To quote Lenin, “The concept (cognition) reveals the essence (the law of causality, identity, difference, etc.) in Being (in immediate phenomena)—such is actually the general course of all human cognition (of all science) in general.”[76] We study being, the object, objective reality, and piercing beyond its immediate surface reach its essence and this gives rise to our concept of it. In turn, we use the concept to understand the essence of new, different beings. All of this occurs within social activity. We move, then, from the concrete to the abstract, and from the abstract to concrete. Hence, although human consciousness reflects reality, it is not a dead mirror, it is not an effect of an impersonal structure.[77] Indeed, it is an expression of the infinite creativity of human agency: we humans collectively forge our reality.

All of our existence therefore is a product of past and present labour viz. of historically developing human activity. As the subject-object, the self-creator, humanity is not the product of any God, nor a “natural” development. In the words of E.V. Ilyenkov,
Nature as such creates absolutely nothing ‘human’. Man with all his specifically human features is from beginning to end the result and product of his own labour. Even walking straight, which appears at first sight man’s natural, anatomically innate trait, is in actual fact a result of educating the child within an established society.[78]
Because we have created this world, it is within our collective power to change it. Yet this can only be done by understanding our current society in its contradictions and revolutionising it “in practice.”[79] In this task there is no better organon than Marx’s dialectical logic. But to grasp the latter we must study it and understand it in its dialectical formation. Heraclitus was the first dialectical logician and all subsequent developments in logic can been seen as refinements in the logos he first set down. The questions is: does one reject or critically accept this heritage? For Marxists, we must unequivocally claim Heraclitus as our teacher, avowing ourselves as his pupils. In the coming revolutionary conflagrations, this ancient thinker still has much to teach us.

[1] Heraclitus, “Fragment 12,” in A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia, ed. Patricia Curd and tran. Richard D. McKirahan Jr. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996), 36.
[2] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greek Philosophy to Plato, trans. E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 279.
[3] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 279.
[4] Ibid., 279.
[5] This combination was accomplished, however, on an idealist basis. Engels set forth the materialist understanding of the dialectic between the logical and historical as follows: “Even after the determination of the method, the critique of economics could still be arranged in two ways — historically or logically. Since in the course of history, as in its literary reflection, the evolution proceeds by and large from the simplest to the more complex relations, the historical development of political economy constituted a natural clue, which the critique could take as a point of departure, and then the economic categories would appear on the whole in the same order as in the logical exposition. This form seems to have the advantage of greater lucidity, for it traces the actual development, but in fact it would thus become, at most, more popular. History moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line, and as this would have to be followed throughout, it would mean not only that a considerable amount of material of slight importance would have to be included, but also that the train of thought would frequently have to be interrupted; it would, moreover, be impossible to write the history of economy without that of bourgeois society, and the task would thus become immense, because of the absence of all preliminary studies. The logical method of approach was therefore the only suitable one. This, however, is indeed nothing but the historical method, only stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurrences. The point where this history begins must also be the starting point of the train of thought, and its further progress will be simply the reflection, in abstract and theoretically consistent form, of the historical course. Though the reflection is corrected, it is corrected in accordance with laws provided by the actual historical course, since each factor can be examined at the stage of development where it reaches its full maturity, its classical form.” See, Frederick Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Part One, Franz Duncker, Berlin, 1859,” in Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1989), 225.
[6] G. W. F. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences with the Zusätze, trans. T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, and H. S. Harris (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991), 144.
[7] The only extensive socialist study of Heraclitus was written by Ferdinand Lassalle. This work, Die Philosophie Herakleitos des Dunkeln von Ephesos, can be found online: https://archive.org/d etails/diephilosophieh01l ass/pag e/n3. However, upon reading it Marx found it wanting and wrote to Engels that “Heraclitus, the Dark Philosopher by Lassalle the Luminous One is, au fond, a very silly concoction. Every time Heraclitus uses an image to demonstrate the unity of AFFIRMATION and NEGATION—and this is often—IN STEPS Lassalle and makes the most of the occasion by treating us to some passage from Hegel’s Logic which is HARDLY improved in the process; always at great length too, like a schoolboy who must show in his essay that he has thoroughly understood his ‘essence’ and ‘appearance’ as well as the ‘dialectical process.’ Once he has got this into his speculative noddle, one may be sure that the schoolboy will nevertheless be able to carry out the process of ratiocination only in strict accord with the prescribed formula and the formes sacramentales. Just so our Lassalle. The fellow seems to have tried to puzzle out Hegelian logic via Heraclitus, nor ever to have tired of beginning the process all over again… Despite the fellow’s claim, by the way, that hitherto Heraclitus has been a book with 7 seals, he has to all intents and purposes added nothing whatever that is new to what Hegel says in the History of Philosophy.” See Karl Marx, “Marx to Engels, 1 February 1858,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Volume 40, Letters 1856-59 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 259-260. This judgement was echoed decades later by another interpreter of Heraclitus: “Lassalle, in two ponderous volumes noted above, made the first and most elaborate attempt to reconstruct the system of the Ephesian philosopher. His work exhibits immense labor and study, and extended research in the discovery of new fragments and of ancient testimony, together with some acuteness in their use. Lassalle has a very distinct view of the philosophy of Heraclitus. But it is not an original view. It is, in fact, nothing but an expansion of the short account of Heraclitus in Hegel’s History of Philosophy, although Lassalle makes no mention of him, except to quote upon his title-page Hegel’s well-known motto, “Es ist kein Satz des Heraklit, den ich nicht in meine Logik aufgenommen”.” See, G.T.W. Patrick, “Introduction,” in The Fragments of the Work of Heraclitus of Ephesus On Nature, trans. G.T.W. Patrick (Baltimore: Press of Isaac Friedenwald, 1889), 4. Lenin, in his philosophical studies, essentially repeated the same criticisms: “One can understand why Marx called this work of Lassalle’s “schoolboyish”…Lassalle simply repeats Hegel, copies from him, re-echoing him a million times with regard to isolated passages from Heraclitus, furnishing his opus with an incredible heap of learned ultra-pedantic ballast. The difference with respect to Marx: In Marx there is a mass of new material, and what interests him is only the movement forward from Hegel and Feuerbach further, from idealistic to materialistic dialectics. In Lassalle there is a rehash of Hegel on the particular theme selected: essentially transcribing from Hegel with respect to quotations from Heraclitus and about Heraclitus.” And he ended his notes on Lassalle writing categorically that “In general, ΣΣ, Marx’s judgment is correct, Lassalle’s book is not worth reading.” See, V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Lassalle’s Book The Philosophy of Heraclitus the Obscure of Ephesus,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 339-340, 353.
[8] Karl Marx, “Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle, 21 December 1857,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Volume 40, Letters 1856-59 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 226.
[9] Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 30.
[10] Ibid., 29.
[11] This importance cannot be stressed enough. Indeed, the father of formal logic, Aristotle, clearly posited the laws of logic in opposition to Heraclitus: “For a principle which every one must have who understands anything that is, is not a hypothesis; and that which every one must know who knows anything, he must already have when he comes to a special study. Evidently then such a principle is the most certain of all; which principle this is, let us proceed to say. It is, that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect; we must presuppose, to guard against dialectical objections, any further qualifications which might be added. This, then, is the most certain of all principles, since it answers to the definition given above. For it is impossible for any one to believe the same thing to be and not to be, as some think Heraclitus says.” See, Aristotle, “Metaphysica,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 736-737. On this matter we should recall the words of Lenin: “NB: At the beginning of The Metaphysics the stubborn struggle against Heraclitus, against his idea of the identity of Being and not-Being (the Greek philosophers approached close to dialectics but could not cope with it).” See, V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Aristotle’s Book Metaphysics,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 366.
[12] T.M. Robinson, Heraclitus, Fragments: A Text and Translation with a Commentary (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 3.
[13] Ibid., 3.
[14] Again, from Marx’s letter to Lassalle: “I am all the more aware of the difficulties you had to surmount in this work in that ABOUT 18 years ago I myself attempted a similar work on a far easier philosopher, Epicurus —namely the portrayal of a complete system from fragments, a system which I am convinced, by the by, was—as with Heraclitus—only implicitly present in his work, not consciously as a system. Even in the case of philosophers who give systematic form to their work, Spinoza for instance, the true inner structure of the system is quite unlike the form in which it was consciously presented by him.” See, Marx, “Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle,” Collected Works Volume 40, 316.
[15] Heraclitus, “Fragment 30,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37. Lenin, in regard to this statement, commented that it was “A very good exposition of the principles of dialectical materialism.” This is high praise indeed coming from Lenin, and it should further emphasise for all Marxists the necessity to study Heraclitus in order to grasp dialectical logic. See, Lenin, “Conspectus of Lassalle’s Book,” 347. I would add that when Lenin referred to “dialectical materialism” he should be taken to mean Marx’s method. As I have argued elsewhere, there is no philosophy of dialectical materialism and Lenin, for a number of reasons, was mistaken on this question. See, Jason Devine, “On the “Philosophy” of “Dialectical Materialism”,” accessed 30 January 2019, http://links.org.au/node/4667 and Jason Devine, “‘Dialectical Materialism,’ Ideology and Revisionism,” accessed 30 January 2019, http://links.org.au/dialec tical-materialism-ideology-revisionism.
[16] Heraclitus, “Fragments 31a and 31b,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[17] Heraclitus, “Fragment 76a,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[18] Heraclitus, “Fragment 1,” in A Presocratics Reader, 30.
[19] Heraclitus, “Fragment 2,” in A Presocratics Reader, 30. This is echoed in Hegel: “It marks the diseased state of the age when we see it adopt the despairing creed that our knowledge is only subjective, and that beyond this subjective we cannot go. Whereas, rightly understood, truth is objective, and ought so to regulate the conviction of every one, that the conviction of the individual is stamped as wrong when it does not agree with this rule.” See, G.W.F. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic: Being Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), tran. William Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 35.
[20] Heraclitus, “Fragment 90,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[21] Heraclitus, “Fragment 65,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38; Heraclitus, “Fragment 67,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38.
[22] Heraclitus, “Fragment 10,” in A Presocratics Reader, 34.
[23] Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 62.
[24] Heraclitus, “Fragment 53,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[25] Heraclitus, “Fragment 66,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38.
[26] Heraclitus, “Fragment 80,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38.
[27] Heraclitus, “Fragment 124,” in A Presocratics Reader, 35.
[28] Heraclitus, “Fragment 84a,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37. Hegel certainly had this in mind when he wrote that “Appearance is the process of arising into being and passing away again, a process that itself does not arise and does not pass away, but is per se, and constitutes reality and the life-movement of truth. The truth is thus the bacchanalian revel, where not a member is sober; and because every member no sooner becomes detached than it eo ipso collapses straightway, the revel is just as much a state of transparent unbroken calm.” G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, tran. J.B. Baillie (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), 105.
[29] This indissoluble unity between creation and destruction was emphasised by Bakunin when he was still a Young Hegelian: “Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” Mikhail Bakunin, “The Reaction in Germany: From the Notebooks of a Frenchman,” in Michael Bakunin, Bakunin on Anarchism, tran. Sam Dolgoff (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), 57.
[30] G.W.F. Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 1 February 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference /archive/hegel/works/na/nature2.htm.
[31] Thomas Posch, “Hegel and the Sciences,” in A Companion to Hegel, eds. Stephen Houlgate and Michael Baur (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), 180.
[32] Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 1 February 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive /hegel/works/na/nature2.htm.
[33] As Hegel said later in his Philosophy of Nature, “life is essentially the concept which realises itself only through self-division and reunification.” Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 1 February 2019, https://www.m arxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/na/nature3.htm.
[34] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 286. Although this fragment is no longer considered to have been written by Heraclitus it does not matter, because in Hegel’s time it was not thought spurious and he therefore had every reason to accept it.
[35] G.W.F. Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 3 February 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference/ar chive/hegel/works/na/nature1.htm.
[36] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 286.
[37] Heraclitus, “Fragment 49a,” in A Presocratics Reader, 36.
[38] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 287.
[39] This is, likewise, an aspect of Hegel reading Heraclitus idealistically: “This one is not an abstraction, but the activity of dividing itself into opposites; the dead infinite is a poor abstraction as compared with the depths of Heraclitus. All that is concrete, as that God created the world, divided Himself, begot a Son, is contained in this determination.” Ibid., 284.
[40] “Precisely for the reason that existence is designated a species or kind, it is naked simple thought: nouς, simplicity, is substance. It is on account of its simplicity, its self-identity, that it appears steady, fixed, and permanent. But this self-identity is likewise negativity; hence that fixed and stable existence carries the process of its own dissolution within itself. The determinateness appears at first to be so solely through its relation to something else; and its process seems imposed and forced upon it externally. But its having its own otherness within itself, and the fact of its being a self-initiated process – these are implied in the very simplicity of thought itself. For this is self-moving thought, thought that distinguishes, is inherent inwardness, the pure notion. Thus, then, it is the very nature of understanding to be a process; and being a process it is Rationality.” Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, 114-115.
[41] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 283; “If we look more closely at the particular form worn by a philosophy we see that it arises, on the one hand, from the living originality of the spirit whose work and spontaneity have reestablished and shaped the harmony that has been rent; and on the other hand, from the particular form of the dichotomy from which the system emerges. Dichotomy is the source of the need of philosophy…Life eternally forms itself by setting up oppositions, and totality at the highest pitch of living energy is only possible through its own re-establishment out of the deepest fission…When the might of union vanishes from the life of men and the antitheses lose their living connection and reciprocity and gain independence, the need of philosophy arises. From this point of view the need is contingent. But with respect to the given dichotomy the need is the necessary attempt to suspend the rigidified opposition between subjectivity and objectivity; to comprehend the achieved existence of the intellectual and real world as a becoming.” G.W.F. Hegel, The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, eds. H. S. Harris and Walter Cerf (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 89, 91.
[42] “Each of the parts of philosophy is a philosophical whole, a circle rounded and complete in itself. In each of these parts, however, the philosophical Idea is found in a particular specificality or medium. The single circle, because it is a real totality, bursts through the limits imposed by its special medium, and gives rise to a wider circle. The whole of philosophy in this way resembles a circle of circles. The Idea appears in each single circle, but, at the same time, the whole Idea is constituted by the system of these peculiar phases, and each is a necessary member of the organization.” Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, 20.
[43] “By describing its circle it expands itself as the subject of the circle and thus describes a self-expanding circle, a spiral.” Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, tran. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 746; “The circle in which simple reproduction moves, alters its form, and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I Book One: The Process of Production of Capital (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 545; “The capitalistic mode of production moves in these two forms of the antagonism immanent to it from its very origin. It is never able to get out of that ‘vicious circle’ which Fourier had already discovered. What Fourier could not, indeed, see in his time is that this circle is gradually narrowing; that the movement becomes more and more a spiral, and must come to an end, like the movement of the planets, by collision with the centre.” Engels, Anti-Dühring, 324; “Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.” V.I. Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 361.
[44] Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’,” 225.
[45] Ibid., 223. This is what Engels, decades later, would refer to as “the dialectical method and…the communist world outlook.” See, Engels, Anti-Dühring, 13.
[46] Karl Marx, “Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 1: 1835-1843 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 64.
[47] “Philosophy, as long as a drop of blood shall pulse in its world-subduing and absolutely free heart, will never grow tired of answering its adversaries with the cry of Epicurus: Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them, is truly impious. Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus: ‘In simple words, I hate the pack of gods,’ is its own confession, its own aphorism against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity. It will have none other beside…Prometheus is the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar.” Ibid., 30-31.
[48] Marx, Grundrisse, 361.
[49] “In other words, the Notion is the soul of all, thus it is self-moving, i.e. it is God. This is the very basis of Hegel’s dialectic. Contrariwise, the premise of Marx’s dialectic is human activity, and in the first place, labour.” Jason Devine, “Dialectical logic in Plato’s ‘Parmenides’, Hegel’s ‘Logic’ and Marx’s ‘Critique of Political Economy’,” accessed 4 February 2019, http://links.org.au/dialectical-logic-plato-parmenides-hegel-marx-critique-political-economy.
[50] Marx, Grundrisse, 360-361.
[51] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981), 132.
[52] Ibid., 132.
[53] “The nearer to our time the economists whom we have to judge, the more severe must our judgment become. For while Smith and Malthus found only scattered fragments, the modern economists had the whole system complete before them: the consequences had all been drawn; the contradictions came clearly enough to light; yet they did not come to examining the premises, and still accepted the responsibility for the whole system. The nearer the economists come to the present time, the further they depart from honesty. With every advance of time, sophistry necessarily increases, so as to prevent economics from lagging behind the times. This is why Ricardo, for instance, is more guilty than Adam Smith, and McCulloch and Mill more guilty than Ricardo.” Frederick Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” in Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981), 154.
[54] As Marx’s studies progressed and his understanding matured, he later distinguished between labour and labour power.
[55] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 132-133.
[56] Marx, Grundrisse, 101.
[57] “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.” Karl Marx, “Theses On Feuerbach,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 617.
[58] “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice… The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Ibid., 617.
[59] Karl Marx, “Marx to P.V. Annekov,” in Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy: Answer to the “Philosophy of Poverty” by M. Proudhon (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 174.
[60] “So out of sense-perception comes to be what we call memory, and out of frequently repeated memories of the same thing develops experience; for a number of memories constitute a single experience. From experience again–i.e. from the universal now stabilized in its entirety within the soul, the one beside the many which is a single identity within them all-originate the skill of the craftsman and the knowledge of the man of science, skill in the sphere of coming to be and science in the sphere of being…When one of a number of logically indiscriminable particulars has made a stand, the earliest universal is present in the soul: for though the act of sense-perception is of the particular, its content is universal–is man, for example, not the man Callias. A fresh stand is made among these rudimentary universals, and the process does not cease until the indivisible concepts, the true universals, are established: e.g. such and such a species of animal is a step towards the genus animal, which by the same process is a step towards a further generalization.” Aristotle, “Analytica Posteriora,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 185.
[61] “When Hegel endeavours—sometimes even huffs and puffs—to bring man’s purposive activity under the categories of logic, saying that this activity is the ‘syllogism’ (Schluß), that the subject (man) plays the role of a ‘member’ in the logical ‘figure’ of the ‘syllogism,’ and so on,—THEN THAT IS NOT MERELY STRETCHING A POINT, A MERE GAME. THIS HAS A VERY PROFOUND, PURELY MATERIALISTIC CONTENT. It has to be inverted: the practical activity of man had to lead his consciousness to the repetition of the various logical figures thousands of millions of times in order that these figures could obtain the significance of axioms. This nota bene.” V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 190.
[62] Aristotle, “Politica,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 1135.
[63] August Thalheimer, Introduction to Dialectical Materialism: The Marxist World-View (New York: Covici Friede, 1936), 62.
[64] Ibid., 60.
[65] Ibid., 61.
[66] Ibid., 61.
[67] Ibid., 62-63.
[68] Ibid., 63.
[69] Ibid., 63-64.
[70] Marc Shell, building on previous Marxist work, has offered the following brilliant insight: “The monetary form of exchange, which Plato feared, informs many fragments of Heraclitus. Of these, one of the most telling is the simple fragment that reads, ‘The way up and the way down are one and the same.’ Heraclitus of Ephesus refers not only to the transformations of fire (pyros tropai) but also to its monetary exchanges (chrysou antamoibai). The way up and the way down refer to sale and purchase. Ephesus, a port on the Mediterranean, was a trading center between Sardis (the capital of Lydia, where gold was minted) and major trading nations (such as Phoenicia). The way to which Heraclitus refers is (in part) a road like that between Sardis and its port, Ephesus.” Marc Shell, The Economy of Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 60-61.
[71] George Thomson, Studies In Ancient Greek Society, Volume II: The First Philosophers (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955), 282. For Thomson this influence logically extended beyond Heraclitus: “The power of abstraction embodied in the Platonic theory of Ideas and in Aristotelian logic was an intellectual product of the social relations created by the abstract process of commodity exchange.” Ibid, 321.
[72] Ibid., 301.
[73] Marc Shell is therefore not quite correct when he attributes the “ingenious” recognition of the connection between the development of commodity production and Greek philosophy to Thomson. See, Shell, The Economy of Literature, 39. The fact is that much of Thomson’s analysis traverses Thalheimer’s pioneering work. Whether the former read the latter is unknown, for Thomson does not cite him. Regardless, by the time Thomson was writing, Thalheimer had long ago been deemed persona non grata by the official Communist movement. See, Robert J. Alexander, The Right Opposition: The Lovestoneites and the International Communist Opposition of the 1930s (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981), 136-138.
[74] “In another section of his notebooks Lenin again connected Hegel and Marx. He wrote that ‘The beginning – the most simple, ordinary, mass, immediate ‘Being’: the single commodity (‘Sein’ in political economy). The analysis of it as a social relation. A double analysis, deductive and inductive – logical and historical (forms of value).’ Lenin directly maintained that both Hegel and Marx start with the barest category and, therefore, that the commodity plays the role of ‘Being’ in Capital. Lenin thus made an even more explicit equation between the two thinkers than he had previously suggested. This thought could have occurred to him in the course of his studies, or he could have had Engels’ well-known 1891 letter to Conrad Schmidt in mind, where Engels gave the latter advice in regards to studying Hegel. Engels, near the end of his letter, wrote that ‘If you compare development from commodity to capital in Marx with development from Being to Essence in Hegel you will get quite a good parallel: here the concrete development which results from facts; there the abstract construction.’ Lenin may have been thinking of this, but even if he did not, it does not truly matter. More importantly is that both Engels and Lenin drew a parallel between the process of development of the commodity and the basic categories of dialectical logic.” Jason Devine, “Dialectical logic in Plato’s ‘Parmenides’, Hegel’s ‘Logic’ and Marx’s ‘Critique of Political Economy’,” accessed 7 February 2019, http://links.org.au/dialectical-logic-plato-parmenides-hegel-marx-critique-political-economy.
[75] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 36-37.
[76] V.I. Lenin, “Plan of Hegel’s Dialectics (Logic). (Contents of the Small Logic (Encyclopaedia)),” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 316. The three parts of Hegel’s Science of Logic are Being, Essence, and Concept, (also translated as Notion).
[77] “Alias: Man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.” Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic,” 212.
[78] E.V. Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital (Moscow: Progress Publishers: 1982), 71-72; “On the contrary, following Spinoza and Marx, Ilyenkov didn’t act on the premise that a human is a dead automaton, but he starts from a living, object oriented active subject –an animal or a human…Just this mental train enables us finally to overcome the dead end of old psycho-physical dualism. The act of thought or psychic act doesn’t start in Ilyenkov’s logic from external stimulus, and doesn’t finish in meaningless mechanical response. It starts from spontaneous directed to its object activity of living subject.” Alexander Surmava, “Evald Ilyenkov and The End of Stimulus – Respond Paradigm” accessed 6 February 2019, http://www.academia.edu/340 90482/Evald _Ilyenkov_vs_Lev_Vygotsky.
[79] Marx, “Theses On Feuerbach,” 616.
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Trotskyism in China-Review by Charlie Hore

Posted by admin On December - 10 - 2018 Comments Off on Trotskyism in China-Review by Charlie Hore


Prophets Unarmed:
Chinese Trotskyists
in Revolution, War, Jail, and the Return from Limbo
Edited by Gregor Benton
Haymarket Books, 2017 · 1,269 pages · $55.00

In the early 1930s there were more Trotskyists in China than anywhere else outside Russia. The defeat of the Chinese revolution in 1927 was one of the decisive factors in the emergence of Trotskyism as a distinct body of thought, and a powerful influence in shifting Trotsky’s views on the nature of Stalinism. It is thus hardly surprising that those who had been on the sharp end of the defeat should be especially receptive to his critique. And yet the history of Chinese Trotskyism is hardly known even among Trotskyists today.1 This magisterial work, building on materials both previously translated and written by the editor, should do much to reverse that lack of knowledge. It is an inspiring story of perseverance against unimaginable odds to keep alive a revolutionary tradition.

There isn’t space here to do anything more than sketch the history of the 1927 revolution,2 but one thing was crucial to the rise of the Trotskyist opposition: the revolution was not just defeated, but betrayed.

Following the end of World War I, an upsurge in nationalist opposition to imperialist domination of China coincided with, and was strengthened by, a revolt among educated youth against the traditional values of the imperial system, which had collapsed in 1911 leaving no national authority in its place. As the movement deepened, it was joined by a newly awoken working class, whose numbers had increased greatly during the war, and soon began using strikes and boycotts against Chinese capitalists, as well as foreign ones. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1920 as a product of this ferment and of the hopes aroused by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. One of the two founders was Chen Duxiu, CCP leader in 1927, who would become a leading figure in the Trotskyist opposition.

In 1923 the CCP was instructed by the Communist International to join the Guomindang, the main nationalist party, not to take it over but “to do coolie work” for the nationalists, as Stalin put it. Although there were repeated objections from CCP members, the alliance held firm, largely because of the prestige of the Russian revolution but also because (it has to be said) the CCP was financially dependent on the Communist International.3

Russia also gave direct military support and training to the nationalists, whose army took advantage of warlord infighting and the strength of the workers movement to first take over Guangdong province and then launch a Northern Expedition to take all of China.

The villages in the path of the Expedition exploded, and strikes spread to all major cities after a mass shooting of protesters. But the more the movement grew, the more it threatened to go beyond a simply nationalist revolution, and consequently the more the nationalists tried to restrain it. Restraint became bloody repression in the spring of 1927, when the nationalists marched into Shanghai on the back of a general strike. More and more repression followed, until by the end of the year the CCP had effectively ceased to exist in the cities.

Trotsky had opposed the CCP entering the Guomindang, and by late 1926 he was arguing for their immediate withdrawal, while conceding that such a move still “presupposes—under existing conditions—a political bloc with the Guomindang or with particular elements of it . . .”4 By early 1927, however, he was arguing for a strategy of building soviets in China, and following the massacre in Shanghai he insisted on the need for a different political strategy that opposed both imperialism and the Chinese bourgeoisie:

The struggle against imperialism, precisely because of its economic and military power, demands a powerful exertion of forces from the very depths of the Chinese people. Really to arouse the workers and peasants against imperialism is possible only by connecting their basic and most profound life interests with the cause of the country’s liberation . . . But everything that brings the oppressed and exploited masses of the toilers to their feet inevitably pushes the national bourgeoisie into an open bloc with the imperialists. The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the masses of workers and peasants is not weakened, but, on the contrary, is sharpened by imperialist oppression, to the point of bloody civil war at every serious conflict.5

He would later write in My Life “the opposition could not rise on the defeat of the Chinese revolution. The fact that our forecast had proved correct might attract one thousand, five thousand or even ten thousand new supporters to us. But for the millions the significant thing was not one forecast, but the fact of the crushing of the Chinese proletariat.”6

The birth of the opposition

This proved to be all too accurate, but among the new supporters attracted were significant numbers of Chinese students in Moscow—and through them growing numbers of CCP members inside China7—who had access not just to Trotsky’s writings on China but also the wider works of the opposition to Stalin. Some even took part in the last public opposition demonstrations in November 1927. And despite the increasing repression following Stalin’s rise to full power the following month, Trotsky’s arguments found a growing audience among Chinese revolutionaries trying to understand the causes of their defeat.

Wang Fanxi, one of the founders of Chinese Trotskyism, whose memoirs make up a substantial part of this book,8 wrote:

In the winter of 1928, the Opposition rapidly expanded its organization among the Chinese students in Moscow. We had comrades everywhere: in the Lenin Institute, in the various military academies and, in particular, at Sun Yatsen University where out of a total of four hundred students about one hundred and fifty were Trotskyists, either as members or as close sympathizers . . .

By 1930 almost all had been sent back to China, though the very last survivors disappeared into Stalin’s prison system. But there was no clear organization in China to draw them all together, and four separate groups emerged. Wang discusses them in detail in a chapter (478–503), which stresses that each “deliberately exaggerated our differences in order to justify the existence of our various factions” (482).

The differences were real, however, and one of the sharpest was over the role of Chen Duxiu. Chen was far and away the most important Communist to come over to the side of Trotsky, but for many younger Chinese revolutionaries his leadership of the CCP tainted him during the defeats of 1927. Chen himself was clearly scarred by his experiences, and loath to take a lead in the reorganization of the Chinese Trotskyists, looked instead to younger comrades to drive the process.

Among the most valuable sections in this book are two separate accounts of Chen’s political evolution and activity (586–693), as well as a selection of his later writings and letters (697–774). The two accounts are by Wang and Zheng Chaolin, the latter another founder of the movement whose memoirs also make up a large part of this work.9 Zheng was one of the first students to return to China in 1924, and worked closely with Chen throughout the revolution, witnessing a number of his clashes with the Russian advisors charged with ensuring the CCP’s obedience. In contrast, Wang only returned to China after the defeats of 1927, and was initially among those who opposed Chen. Their differing perspectives do much to bring into focus this contradictory and independent-minded figure, a giant of the revolutionary tradition, who deserves to be far better known than he is.10

Unification, prison, and war

Although Chen played a key role in bringing the four groups together in one organization, he later developed major differences with the group’s perspectives, and by his death in 1942 no longer considered himself a Trotskyist—though still a revolutionary. However, while Chen’s role was important, it was Trotsky’s that was decisive.

The terrain on which the Chinese Trotskyists were working in the early 1930s was confusing and hostile. The Guomindang’s terror had destroyed the organized labor movement in Shanghai and Guangdong and made any open political activity impossible in the territory under their control. Central and northern China were under the control of contending warlords, while in the northeast, Japanese forces were advancing from late 1931 onwards. The British colony of Hong Kong and the International Settlement in Shanghai—a British-run enclave in the heart of the city—ironically offered the least dangerous environments, though the Settlement’s police regularly handed over political prisoners to the Guomindang.

In early 1931 Trotsky wrote a letter to all the Trotskyist groups arguing for immediate unification—“fuse your organizations and your press definitively this very day!”11—which pushed the groups together, and produced a unified organization just five months later. The Chinese Left Opposition12 brought together a claimed 483 militants13 in a process that seemed to erase the old factional differences. Three weeks later, however, the Guomindang arrested almost the entire leadership, splintering the new organization. Some activity resumed in 1934 around the South African militant Frank Glass,14 who was almost the only link to the Trotskyist movement elsewhere. By 1935 a new leadership had managed to establish a monthly journal and a more irregular theoretical publication, both of which survived until 1942, though the journal never managed a print run of more than 200 copies (513).

But the political landscape had shifted again, with Japan having attacked the Chinese-governed parts of Shanghai in 1932 and now occupying almost all of northern China. Nationalist feelings were running high, and in the summer of 1936 the CCP and Guomindang announced a new alliance to oppose Japan’s invasion. The Trotskyists saw this—understandably, but wrongly—as an extension of the “popular front” policies that Communist parties were following in Europe and denounced the CCP for “abandoning” the Red Armies. In practice, Mao Zedong’s strategy was quite the opposite, and in the war against Japan the CCP built the armies, which would bring them to power in 1949.

Frank Glass sent Trotsky a report on the state of the movement in early 1940, which is almost the only outsider’s account that we have.15 He noted, “Comrades differ in their estimation of our strength. Some put the figure at 500; others state that 200 is more accurate. The war has made it impossible to ascertain the correct position.” He gave a bleak picture of the various repressive forces making activity difficult, but also stressed what they had managed to achieve: two more or less regular publications; numbers of leaflets; and translations of Trotsky, Victor Serge and Ignazio Silone among others. Their activity had attracted a public attack from the CCP, which among the usual lies more inventively alleged, “almost all Trotskyites are homosexuals and hold orgies in bathhouses”!

Divisions had already opened up on the attitude that the Trotskyists should take toward the opposition to Japan, with Chen breaking with the group in favor of complete support for the “war of national resistance.” Individuals joined guerrilla groups and in two cases led them, but the organization as a whole took a position of critical support, though there was little they could do about this practically.

America’s declaration of war on Japan in 1941 led to a formal split, however, with one group arguing that the war in China had become part of an imperialist war, and that revolutionaries should therefore be opposed to all sides. Personal divisions going back to the mid-1920s (a constant thread running through this volume, unfortunately) undoubtedly deepened the split, but the political differences were clear enough. Wang and Zheng were both part of the minority, while the majority was led by Peng Shuzhi, whose rather self-serving account to the American SWP in 1947 is given here (followed by a response from Wang).

Japan’s surrender in August 1945 opened up again the possibility of open activity, though the ranks of both groups had been depleted by wars, prison, and attacks from both the Guomindang and the CCP. The two groups had between them half the numbers of those represented at the unification conference—something over 200 people, with most members in Shanghai. But both were able to gain a wider audience, with the minority producing a (short-lived) magazine with a print-run of 2,000 copies, while both moved toward declaring themselves a party.

The end of the war with Japan was followed almost immediately by the civil war, which pitted the CCP’s armies, massively strengthened by years of guerrilla warfare, and against the Guomindang armed by the USA. The Trotskyists shared the general view that the CCP could not win—as late as 1947 Wang could write that “the civil war is devoid of any perspective, and is even doomed to failure because of its Stalinist domination,” while the majority spoke of their coming defeat as “caused by the treacherous politics of the party [the CCP] and the Kremlin.”

1949 and afterwards

By 1949, however, the outcome was inevitable. The majority moved its leadership out of China to Hong Kong, while the minority voted to stay “based on the simple conviction that it was better for a revolutionary organization of the working class to go down fighting than quit the field without a contest.”

After 1949 an illegal journal was again published, and Trotskyists led strikes and other struggles in Shanghai and Guangdong, while the CCP both repressed and tried to co-opt them. But in December 1952, a coordinated national roundup arrested every known Trotskyist as well as many relatives and suspected sympathizers—something like a thousand people in all, according to Zheng. As far as is known, the repression was complete. Relatives and those who had no political connection were released, but those who stuck to their views were given long sentences and then sent to “reform-through-labor” farms or factories16 after their formal release. In 1979 the last twelve surviving prisoners, including Zheng, were released.

How did they understand what had happened in 1949? According to Wang, he originally took a “bureaucratic collectivist” position, while Zheng saw the new regime as “state capitalist,” but by 1950 both had come around to a position of welcoming the revolution.17 Wang adhered to the postwar “orthodox Trotskyist” position that China, like the Stalinist states in eastern Europe, had become a “deformed workers’ state,” arguing that the CCP had somehow kept its character as a working-class party throughout the 1930s and 1940s and was thus still a revolutionary force.

Peng, who was to be for decades the Fourth International’s China spokesman, arrived at the same conclusion but by a different route. For him the CCP’s victory was largely due to exceptional circumstances, and he asserted that the move towards a workers’ state had happened because the CCP had been transformed through recruiting workers in the early 1950s. He finished his report to the FI’s Third World Congress in 1951 by arguing that the CCP was “in transition to a workers’ party” and that China was “moving in the direction of a deformed dictatorship of the proletariat.”

What neither grasped was that the CCP had become a nationalist party, and crucially a better nationalist party than the Guomindang, which was what had enabled it to become an independent force capable of imposing itself on Chinese society as a new ruling class. 1949 was indeed a revolution—but a nationalist one, not a working-class one.

Trotsky’s view that only the working class could lead a revolution that overthrew the landowners became a constricting dogma, arguing that because the landowners had been overthrown, the new regime must therefore be a working-class one. But if Mao’s Red Army could somehow “represent” the working class, then so could other groups of guerrillas or, for that matter, radical army officers.18 In the process, the idea that the emancipation of the working class was necessarily the act of the working class slipped out of sight.

Could the Trotskyists have done anything differently to better their chances of having an influence on events? For Benton and Wang the answer is yes: they should have recognized that the locus of struggle had moved to the countryside and sought to build guerrilla groups as part of the resistance to Japan. Leaving aside the huge difficulties in transplanting a group of mostly urban intellectuals into the Chinese countryside in the 1930s (which, to be fair, both recognize), this misses the more basic point that the politics of collective working-class organization cannot simply be replicated among peasants. Being, as the saying goes, determines consciousness.

Elsewhere Benton describes well the evolution of the CCP: “A regular army was built up that, though less cruel and corrupt than the Guomindang forces, insisted like any army on discipline, regimentation, secrecy and a top-down structure of command. These qualities, which are radically incompatible with democracy, rubbed off thickly on the CCP; military norms increasingly came to rule political life in the Communist areas.”19 Had the Trotskyists managed to implant themselves in the villages, it would have been almost impossible to prevent the same happening to them.

In reality, they were a tiny and isolated group of revolutionary socialists, living through some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century, and at different times persecuted by the Western powers in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and elsewhere by the Guomindang, the Japanese, and the CCP. That they survived at all is a major achievement.


In this short review I have concentrated on the basic history, but there is much more to discover in this marvelous volume—a long section on the Trotskyists and literature, for example, as well as some fascinating insights into life in revolutionary Russia in the mid-1920s. Two points are worth emphasizing in conclusion. The first is how readable this collection is. Twelve hundred pages looks impossibly daunting, but by presenting different voices in thematic sections the editor has made this a very approachable and readable work.

The second point is that while the overall arc of the narrative may be one of defeat, the tone is anything but. Wang and Zheng, in particular, are not mourning their fates but celebrating and critically analyzing both what they achieved and what they failed to achieve, as lessons offered to the future. We owe it to their memories to pay attention to this surely definitive account of a crucial part of our history.

Chinese Trotskyism gets just two pages in Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Outcast, and none in Tony Cliff’s The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star.
The essential history is Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, most recently reprinted by Haymarket Books.
“Expenses for the central organs of the party during the fall and winter of 1921 to 1922 had totalled 17,500 Chinese dollars, of which the Comintern had provided 16,665 dollars.” Jonathan Spence, Mao (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999), 67.
Leon Trotsky, On China (New York: Monad Books, 1976), 116. This is a much fuller collection of Trotsky’s writings on China than the earlier collection Problems of the Chinese Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967). Problems, however, is available online: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/pcr/index.htm.
Trotsky, On China,161, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/pcr/01.htm.
Leon Trotsky, My life (London: Penguin Books, 1975) 553, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/. The quote is from chapter 42.
Victor Serge asserted that these even included Mao Zedong, who “was very close to us in his ideas, but . . . stayed close to the party to keep his supplies of weapons and munitions.” Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York: New York Review of Books, 2012), 257. His political opponents often described Mao as a “Trotskyite”, but this was simply a standard political insult. None of the biographies of Mao, nor this collection, repeat this assertion, and I think we have to conclude that Serge was misinformed.
Originally published as Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary: Memoirs 1919–1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), reissued with an additional final chapter as Wang Fanxi, Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
Zheng Chaolin, An Oppositionist for Life (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1997). The chapter on Chen Duxiu in the present volume is, however, from China’s Urban Revolutionaries: Explorations in the History of Chinese Trotskyism, edited by Gregor Benton (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996).
In English there is just one biography (Lee Feigon, Chen Duxiu, Founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983) and a collection of later writing from which the selections here are taken (Chen Duxiu’s Last Articles and Letters, 1937–1942, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1984).
The letter is oddly not in this volume, but it is in Trotsky’s On China, 492–500. Emphasis in the original.
Formally, it was the Left Opposition of the Chinese Communist Party, as Trotsky’s perspective was still reclaiming the Communist parties for revolutionary politics. By 1931 this was pretty much a dead letter everywhere, and it is notable that Trotsky’s letter didn’t mention the CCP. Apart from arguing for a critically supportive attitude to the peasant “Red Armies.”
Figure from Benton (ed), China’s Urban Revolutionaries, 35.
Glass’s story is told in Baruch Hirson, The Restless Revolutionary (London: Porcupine Press, 2003).
First published in the journal Revolutionary History, vol.2, no.4, (Spring 1990), https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backissu.htm.
A system where prisoners having served their formal sentences remain detained, though usually under less unpleasant conditions than in prison. Zheng Chaolin was sent to a glassworks in central Shanghai, where his wife joined him.
Wang had somehow been in touch with the US Workers’ Party, which had published his reply to Peng Shuzi’s 1947 report. There seems to be no surviving record of his and Zheng’s original positions.
See Tony Cliff’s ‘Deflected Permanent Revolution’ for an elaboration of this point: https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1963/xx/permrev.htm.
Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries, 117.

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Trotskyology-Christian Høgsbjerg

Posted by admin On December - 3 - 2018 Comments Off on Trotskyology-Christian Høgsbjerg


A review of John Kelly, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain (Routledge, 2018), £29.99

Leon Trotsky, the organiser of the October 1917 insurrection and founder of the Red Army, cannot be dismissed by anyone lightly. However, amid the academic literature on social movements the role played by Trotskyists has often been a much maligned, caricatured and marginalised phenomenon—dismissed as part of the “old” left rather than the “new”. This is despite the fact that—or perhaps because—Trotskyist activists and organisations, certainly in Britain, have often had a presence, resilience and staying power greater than shorter-lived autonomist and anarchist style formations.

Indeed, it is a little puzzling that there is such a general weakness in the academic literature on social movements. Trotskyists have played a critical, leading role in many mass movements in post-war British history such as the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (1966-71), the Anti-Nazi League (1977-81), the Anti Poll Tax Federation (1989-91) and the Stop the War Coalition (2001-). There is a welcome sign, however, that this vacuum is beginning to be filled, with the recent edited collection Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley,1 and now a well-researched and generally well-informed monograph from John Kelly analysing contemporary British Trotskyism. Kelly is a sociologist and the author of an important 1988 work Trade Unions and Socialist Politics which was the subject of a debate, to which Kelly himself contributed, in the pages of International Socialism.2

However, Contemporary Trotskyism is not without its flaws, and not merely because, as a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Kelly falls into occasional minor errors—for those errors are themselves arguably revealing of a more general lack of understanding. Critically, both the strengths and limitations of Kelly’s work flow from his approach and methods, which are those of an academic sociologist. He is at pains to try to understand Trotskyist groups not through a revolutionary Marxist lens but instead as “comprising elements of the political party, the doctrinal sect and the social movement”. Nonetheless, despite his weak underlying theoretical framework, Kelly has undertaken painstaking empirical research into the records and publications of various groups, archival studies of internal bulletins and papers and interviews with leading members of different Trotskyist organisations. His book is thought-provoking and in some senses provides a useful frame through which to reflect and take stock of where the revolutionary socialist movement in Britain currently stands, just over a century after the Russian Revolution of 1917. He has discussions of all manner of aspects of political activism associated with British Trotskyism, including for example its relationship to building wider social movements, levels of party recruitment, organisational resources, international affiliations, electoral performance and, last but not least, work in trade unions. His overall periodisation of the British Trotskyist movement, from formation (1932-49), the “bleak years” of 1950-65 and the “golden age” of 1966-85, through to “disintegration” (1985-2004) and “stasis” from 2004 to the present, is generally persuasive and will ring true with the experiences of activists.

From 500 or so members—mainly organised trade unionists—in the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944, by the start of the 1950s and after a series of splits, the movement, as Kelly notes, “comprised no more than 100 people in three small groups, all working inside the Labour Party but with almost no presence or influence inside the trade union movement”. Kelly sadly does not dwell on the major theoretical crisis of the 1940s. This arose when Trotsky’s rather catastrophist prognosis and perspectives for the future, outlined in his 1938 The Transitional Programme with its talk of “the death agony of ­capitalism”, made it difficult for the movement to orientate towards what became the greatest economic boom in the history of capitalism after the Second World War. The continuation of the Soviet Union, and indeed expansion of the Stalinist regimes across Eastern Europe, also confounded Trotsky’s expectations about its likely ability to survive the war. The three small groups during the 1950s—the Socialist Review Group around Tony Cliff (which later became the International Socialists and then the Socialist Workers Party, associated with this journal), the Club around Gerry Healy (later the Socialist Labour League and then the Workers Revolutionary Party) and the Revolutionary Socialist League around Ted Grant (later the Militant Tendency)—grew into substantial organisations from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, as the level of class struggle rose to its height in the 1970s. “From a little over 1,500 members in 1965 the movement grew rapidly over the next 20 years, reaching almost 4,000 by the 1970s, nearly 10,000 by 1980 and peaking at over 20,000 in 1985”.3

The downturn in industrial struggle by this point—and the refusal of many Trotskyist groups to face up to this reality—led to the disintegration of, for example, the WRP (analysed by Duncan Hallas at the time4). The Militant Tendency, with its long-term “entryist” approach to the Labour Party, had benefitted from the rise of left reformism around Tony Benn in the early 1980s, as thousands of former revolutionaries, disillusioned by the collapse of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, joined the Labour Party. Yet the Militant were not strong enough to resist Neil Kinnock’s witch-hunt against them, leading to their collapse and split in 1992, and the formation of the Socialist Party (SP) outside Labour.

The SWP, thanks to Cliff’s analysis of the Soviet Union as bureaucratic state capitalist, had better weathered the collapse of Stalinism than its competitors on the far-left, who generally saw the Soviet Union as in some sense “socialist” or a “workers’ state”. But the generally falling levels of class struggle during the 1990s meant the party was unable to sustain its membership. Accordingly, as Kelly notes, by 2004 “the entire Trotskyist movement had shrunk to 6,500 members, less than one-third of its 1985 peak”. Since 2005, amid right-wing Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and then the economic crisis and brutal austerity pursued by the Tories since 2010, and amid various further splits and crises, Kelly notes a “limited and uneven recovery” of membership to around 9,500 or so in 2016. The generally very low level of class struggle has, however, meant ideas of “working class self-emancipation” through revolution from below still seem very abstract to most, and many radicals young and old instead look to the more “realistic” option of change through parliamentary socialism, in part explaining the return of left reformism around Jeremy Corbyn.

It is a pity in a sense that Kelly’s book did not come out a year or so earlier. Amid the rise of Corbynism since 2015, the Labour right around Tom Watson and various others in the liberal media made repeated attempts to whip up hysteria and a “red scare” around apparent “Trotsky entryists” in the Labour Party, with various purges of Labour members carried out by Blairite apparatchiks, who apparently jokingly referred to what they were doing as “Operation Icepick”. If Kelly’s book had been available at the time, it might have been possible to keep a sense of proportion about the potential influence of 9,500 Trotskyists in Britain while hundreds of thousands joined (or re-joined) the Labour Party, and not least because the two largest and most important British Trotskyist groups—the SWP and the SP—were not even trying to encourage their members to engage in “entryism”.

Kelly’s main underlying analysis is that a Trotskyist group—and essentially any Marxist group—represents “an organisational hybrid” of party, sect and movement. This argument is problematic in the sense it applies abstractions from political science—for example, the bourgeois “political party”, to attempts to build a revolutionary workers’ party for very different ends and purposes.

Kelly argues that the Trotskyist group comprises “elements of the social movement”, suggesting that “Trotskyist organisations occasionally seek to build broad coalitions of social forces around a specific issue or demand and to that extent they function as social movements”. Of course, the challenge and task for any Trotskyist group is to grow to a size where it can become not only embedded and make a difference in shaping the outcomes of the wider labour movement and class struggle, but also help to form and shape wider “social movements” such as those around fighting austerity, cuts, racism, fascism, climate change and so on.

Yet we also have a much greater task and historic mission. Without understanding the sense in which “contemporary Trotskyism” in general sees itself as standing in a longer tradition going back not only to Leon Trotsky but the whole wider tradition of classical, revolutionary Marxism associated with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci—and even before that to pioneering revolutionary socialists such as Gracchus Babeuf, one can only wonder—as Kelly does—at why “the Trotskyist movement is remarkably resilient despite the failure to achieve its overarching objective”—revolution. Because Kelly avoids discussing the 1930s and 1940s period in any detail, he fails to understand fully the conditions in which Trotsky and his tiny band of followers fought “against the stream” to keep alive the genuine revolutionary socialist tradition amid the rise of fascism and Stalinism and so fails to understand the intellectual and political formation of those who would lead British Trotskyism in the post-war period. The likes of Cliff, Grant and Healy saw how close the genuine Marxist tradition was to being extinguished in that period. Therefore, it is not surprising they had the tenacity to emerge as leading figures during the “bleak years” of the 1950s and give younger comrades a sense of revolutionary experience and tradition. Cliff was able to console despondent comrades during the downturn in class struggle during the 1980s by saying, “if you think this is bad, you should have seen the 1930s”.

Kelly’s real detachment from understanding this essential aspect of the Trotskyist movement as part of a longer revolutionary socialist tradition is highlighted when he terms the Marxist doctrine underpinning contemporary Trotskyism as “rigid and unhelpful” and its vision of world revolution as ­“millenarian”. Of course one does not have to look far to find examples of tiny Trotskyist sects that are resilient, but also seemingly stuck in a 1938 time warp and hence with a dogmatic outlook on the world that is far removed from 21st century realities. However, the key issue that has to be explained is not this phenomenon as such, intriguing to some as it no doubt is, but the continuing relative resilience and resonance among a wider audience on the left of bigger groups like the SWP and SP—and this can only be done with detailed reference to their actual specific political theory and practice, which Kelly sadly does not do.

Those hoping for a narrative that might seriously build on the pioneering historical work undertaken by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson in the 1980s on the early years of British Trotskyism5 and take the story to the present will therefore only be disappointed by Contemporary Trotskyism. Of course to undertake such a historical work may be asking too much of any individual—it took Ian Birchall a decade to work on his fine biography of just one key individual, Tony Cliff. For someone to extend that kind of work to the movement as a whole would be a labour of love that it is hard to see anyone completing anytime in the foreseeable future.6

While Kelly’s work is then scholarly and sophisticated in its own way, its framing academic sociological method and approach mean he necessarily misses much of interest and importance about the contemporary British Trotskyist movement—not only aspects of the institutional, political and organisational history but also the sense of personality, lived experience and cultural dimensions of the movement in all its richness (and, yes at times, also ridiculousness). To be fair there are glimpses of this here and there—Kelly notes how: “an invitation to an International Marxist Group cadre school in 1980 listed the usual attractions with speakers such as Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn and Ernest Mandel, as well as movies and then continued, ‘An event not to be missed is the Saturday afternoon cricket match between Socialist Challenge and Socialist Worker’.”7

But it might have been nice for example to have included at least some ­passing acknowledgement of the role played by Trotskyist activists in the formation of Rock Against Racism, which Stuart Hall called “one of the timeliest and best constructed of cultural interventions, repaying serious and extended analysis” (and then its subsequent organisational form, Love Music Hate Racism).8 Or how the Redskins band, whose first single was called “Lev Bronstein” and their album titled Neither Washington Nor Moscow, helped take the revolutionary socialist politics of the SWP to a wider popular audience in the “golden age” of British Trotskyism.

Kelly rightly acknowledges many critical moments where British Trotskyist groups punched above their weight and helped make a significant difference to wider national politics, from the role played by the International Group (later better known as the International Marxist Group) in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the Militant Tendency in the Anti Poll Tax Federation, and the SWP in the Anti-Nazi League and the Stop the War Coalition.9 As Kelly notes, “Trotskyist involvement in social movements has contributed significantly to their standing and reputation”, but “paradoxically, social movement success has rarely translated into Trotskyist organisational success and indeed it is more common to find an inverse relationship between the two: during the heyday of the ANL and the Anti Poll Tax Federation their respective creators (the SWP and the Militant Tendency) both suffered significant erosion of membership”.10

One of the many reasons Kelly suggests for this is that “the downplaying of doctrine that has proved essential for social movement success obscures the relevance of Trotskyist ideas and the perceived necessity for a Trotskyist organisation”. Joseph Choonara, in his review of Kelly’s work in Socialist Review, has discussed this issue in some detail, rightly noting that there is not such a contradiction between “social movement building” and Marxist “doctrine” as Kelly maintains: “organisations such as the ANL and, more recently, Stand Up to Racism, embody the spirit of Trotsky’s united front, creatively applied to the present”.11 However, Kelly’s more general point remains pertinent—and raises a key question about how, when Trotskyist groups take on organisational responsibilities for wider social movements, they can often fail fully to engage in political debate and argument alongside joint work, leading to “united fronts” being a route out of revolutionary politics instead of helping the growth of revolutionary organisations. In some ways British Trotskyism benefitted in the past from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) putting party resources into running wider social movements (for example around CND or the Anti-Apartheid Movement), leaving Trotskyists freer to concentrate their resources and energies on “party-building”. Rightly, British Trotskyists have tried and often succeeded in filling the vacuum resulting from the long decline of the CPGB in the post-war period in “social movement organising”. But Kelly’s work is a timely reminder that it is not at all automatic that the revolutionary left will be the beneficiaries of such campaigning work.

Moreover, while it is often the case, as Kelly argues, that “the conditions for movement success—specific and achievable goals, the downplaying of doctrine and a broad coalition of social forces—calls into question the necessity for a fundamental challenge to capitalism”, this is not always the case. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Anti Poll Tax Federation and Stop the War Coalition could be said to be limited in a sense to specific and achievable goals—such as stopping the war. But the fact that the Stop the War Coalition continues to operate points not only to its limited success in stopping imperialist ­interventions but also to the fact that we are in a period of permanent warfare as a result of intensifying inter-imperialist rivalries. The Anti-Nazi League played a critical role in smashing the fascist National Front, and could be described as a coalition that came together for that specific purpose. But the continued need for anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigning does raise a wider issue about a crisis-ridden system under which both racism and fascism continue to regenerate themselves.

Choonara also rightly notes the slightly problematic nature of the characterisation of what Kelly calls “the seven Trotskyist families”—“mainstream”, “third camp”, “orthodox”, “institutional”, “radical”, “workerist” and “Latin American”. Though to try and unpick and more accurately make sense of all the nuances of the different varieties of Trotskyist groupings—Kelly estimates there were some 22 “contemporary British Trotskyist organisations” in existence in 2017, and 23 “Fourth Internationals” 80 years after Trotsky founded his original in 1938—would probably be a feat beyond even the most dedicated student of Trotskyism. It also says something about the weakness of Kelly’s approach that he tries to give more or less equal attention to minuscule outfits that barely even deserve the name “sect”, and groups like the SWP and SP, as if they were somehow comparable in terms of significance. Alex Callinicos’s 1990 work Trotskyism far more usefully underlines some of the major fundamental theoretical differences which emerged in the Cold War period, and should be consulted by those who want to explore this issue further. As Callinicos noted, after Trotsky’s murder at the hands of a Stalinist agent in 1940:

The subsequent history of Trotskyism was shaped by the great crisis of the 1940s, precipitated by the refutation of Trotsky’s predictions about the Second World War and its outcome. The differing responses made to this crisis irrevocably shattered the unity of the Trotskyist movement and produced three main theoretico-political strands, radically different from one another but all deriving from Trotsky: the “orthodox Trotskyism” of the various Fourth Internationals; those revisions of orthodoxy which tended to imply a break with classical Marxism ([Max] Shachtman and [Cornelius] Castoriadis, for example); and the International Socialist tradition founded by Cliff, whose critique of orthodox Trotskyism was conceived rather as a return to classical Marxism.12

What Kelly calls the “extraordinarily fissiparous character of world Trotskyism” is undeniable. Kelly blames Trotsky himself for some of this, noting for example that in 1933 Trotsky wrote “with real enthusiasm about the benefits of a split” among his French followers in the Communist League, on the grounds that “what will be lost—partly only temporarily—will be regained a hundredfold already at the next stage”. It is of course right that sometimes organisational splits are indeed necessary—Kelly quotes Trotsky in 1931, again writing to the Communist League in France: “at times a split is a lesser evil. An organisation that is smaller but more unanimous can have enormous success with a correct policy, while an ­organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot”.13

Yet Kelly might have also noted that Trotsky and his followers tried to work in the Stalinised Communist International right up to the rise of the Nazis in 1933—the greatest defeat in the history of the workers’ movement—and the bankruptcy of Stalinism that this exposed. Only then did Trotsky work to rebuild a new International from scratch. As Trotsky himself wrote in 1923, while arguing for trying to remain and reform the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in the face of the rising Stalinist bureaucracy:

A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person; he is a person who in each case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own and defends it ­courageously and independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party. Today, perhaps, he will be in the minority in his organisation. He will submit, because it is his party. But this does not always signify that he is in the wrong. Perhaps he saw or understood before the others did a new task or the necessity of a turn. He will persistently raise the question a second, a third, a tenth time, if need be. Thereby he will render his party a service, helping it to meet the new task fully armed or to carry out the necessary turn without organic upheavals, without fractional convulsions.14

As Charlie van Gelderen, a South African Trotskyist who had been active in Britain since the 1930s and who had attended the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938 noted (when reflecting on the 60th anniversary of this event in 1998): “Sectarian splits have been a chronic ailment of our movement. Minorities split off on the slightest pretext to form tiny sects, impotent and without any future. How different to Trotsky who persisted in his adherence to the Third International until 1933 and the utter defeat of the German working class”.15

Kelly is unable to make sense of this characteristic tendency of Trotskyist groups towards sectarian splits, with its original roots in the legacy of Trotsky’s mistaken perspectives and the theoretical crisis it bequeathed the 1940s Trotskyist movement after his murder. Matters were not helped by Trotsky’s tactical error to launch the Fourth International in 1938, at a time when the Trotskyist movement was minuscule and facing a barrage of Stalinist slander and terror. Modelled on the Communist International—which had been a mass organisation—but without even Trotsky’s leadership after 1940, the leaders who subsequently came to take the helm of a few thousand Trotskyists aspiring to be the “world party of socialist revolution” could only suffer inevitable delusions of grandeur. Yet as Callinicos noted, there were other critical issues as well—the very small size of the movement and its general historic isolation from the mass of working class struggles meant “the inability to influence events is itself likely to encourage splits: since there is no way of settling differences in analysis or policy by practical tests, why not break away?”.

In the 21st century, the growing volatility of international politics and continuing instability of the world economy, the resurgence of a racist populist right internationally emboldened by Trump, and the historic experience of left reformist governments in office, lessons confirmed by failings of the current Syriza government in Greece, mean that the importance of renewing Marxist theory to help make sense of the contemporary world crisis, and of continuing to build mass anti-racist and anti-fascist movements alongside revolutionary socialist organisation with roots in the British working class movement cannot be understated. If revolutionaries today want to understand something of the history of British Trotskyism in order to arm themselves for the struggles ahead, the writings of Duncan Hallas—a veteran British Trotskyist in his own right—on Trotsky and Trotskyism will arguably serve as a far better guide than John Kelly’s book. One of Hallas’s 1982 essays, on “Revolutionaries and the Labour Party”, on the historic experience of entryism, repays particular re-reading today given Corbynism. His conclusion to that essay remains relevant for the period we find ourselves in today:

The task of revolutionary socialists is to face reality, to recognise things as they are, to fight very hard in support of all the struggles that do occur, to seek to increase their numbers and influence on that basis, to apply the united front approach systematically and untiringly. It is also to patiently explain, to clarify what is and what is not revolutionary work. Both these tasks require a revolutionary party, operating openly under its own banner.16

Christian Høgsbjerg teaches history at the University of Brighton and is the co-editor of ­Marxism, Colonialism and Cricket: C L R James’s Beyond a Boundary (Duke University Press, 2018).


1 Smith and Worley, 2014.

2 Kelly, 1988; see also Kelly, 1989.

3 Kelly, 2018, p40.

4 Hallas, 1985.

5 See Bornstein and Richardson, 1986a and b.

6 Birchall, 2011. Birchall’s own review of Kelly’s Contemporary Trotskyism appears at Review 31. Go to http://review31.co.uk/article/view/553/was-it-all-futile

7 Kelly, 2018, p84.

8 For more on Trotskyist involvement in Rock Against Racism, see Goodyer, 2009 and Huddle and Saunders, 2016.

9 Clearly this sentence simplifies and obscures the role played by the other Trotskyist groups in the respective campaigns highlighted, for example IS/SWP were involved in the VSC and also Anti Poll Tax Federation, if not in leadership positions.

10 Kelly, 2018, pp213-214.

11 Choonara, 2018.

12 Callinicos, 1990.

13 Quoted in Kelly, 2018, p30.

14 Trotsky, 1923.

15 O’Malley, 2002.

16 Hallas, 1982.


Birchall, Ian, 2011, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (Bookmarks).

Bornstein, Sam and Al Richardson, 1986a, Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1924-38 (Merlin Press).

Bornstein, Sam and Al Richardson, 1986b, War and the International: History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1937-49 (Socialist Platform).

Callinicos, Alex, 1990, Trotskyism (Open University Press).

Choonara, Joseph, 2018, “Trotskyism under the Spotlight”, Socialist Review (June), http://socialistreview.org.uk/436/trotskyism-under-spotlight

Goodyer, Ian, 2009, Crisis Music: The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism (Manchester University Press).

Hallas, Duncan, 1982, “Revolutionaries and the Labour Party”, International Socialism 16 (spring), www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1982/revlp/index.htm

Hallas, Duncan, 1985, “Cult Comes a Cropper”, Socialist Review (December), www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1985/12/cult.htm

Huddle, Roger, and Red Saunders (eds), 2016, Reminiscences of RAR: Rocking against Racism, 1976-1982 (Redwords).

Kelly, John, 1988, Trade Unions and Socialist Politics (Verso).

Kelly, John, 1989, “Reply to Jack Robertson”, International Socialism 42 (spring).

Kelly, John, 2018, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties: Sects and Social Movements in Britain (Routledge).

O’Malley, Philomena, 2002, “Celebrating the Life of Charlie van Gelderen”, International Viewpoint (9 February), www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article521

Smith, Evan and Matthew Worley, 2014, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press).

Trotsky, Leon, 1923, The New Course (Appendix 1, A Letter to Party Meetings), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1923/newcourse/x01.htm
Fair Use Notice
This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Antonio Gramsci and the Modern Prince-Paul Le Blanc

Posted by admin On December - 2 - 2018 Comments Off on Antonio Gramsci and the Modern Prince-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.
Gramsci Marxist theory Paul Le Blanc

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Karl Kautsky: From Pope to Renegade-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On October - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on Karl Kautsky: From Pope to Renegade-Doug Enaa Greene



Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, 1910
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Voice with author’s permission — At the height of the Second International, Karl Kautsky was recognized by socialists and anti-socialists alike as “The Pope of Marxism” for his popularization and systematization of Marxist ideas. The great figures of the day looked to him for guidance, whether Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, V. I. Lenin, or Eugene Debs. Since Kautsky was such an authoritative voice on Marxism, his subsequent betrayal was so deep that later communists could be forgiven for mistaking his first name as “Renegade” (as Lenin bitterly called him). Although Kautsky fell into obscurity following the Russian Revolution, in the last few years there has been a revival of interest in his politics in both academia (notably by the scholar Lars Lih) and on the political left. This raises questions about the meaning of Kautsky’s orthodox Marxism and about what, if anything, a renewed revolutionary left should adopt from it as our own?

Kautsky’s Orthodoxy
Karl Kautsky was originally born in Prague in 1854 and joined the socialist movement while a student there in the mid-1870s. However, it was only after moving to Germany and joining the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that he began his rise to prominence. In 1883, Kautsky was made editor of Die Neue Zeit, the SPD’s main theoretical journal, for which he wrote on many theoretical, historical, and political topics. By 1891, Kautsky’s reputation had grown so much among socialists that he was chosen to co-write the SPD’s Erfurt Programme and a popular commentary on it known as The Class Struggle.

The Erfurt Programme and subsequent works by Kautsky systematized the SPD’s understanding of Marxist orthodoxy. According to Kautsky, the contradictions of capitalism would eventually cause the system to break down. Capitalism brought with it the accumulation, centralization, and concentration of capital, the growth of the working class, and sharper divisions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Ultimately, the relations of production would cease to foster the development of the productive forces, and this would signal the onset of the socialist revolution.

For Kautsky, it was the mission of social democracy to educate the workers that their salvation could not be found in capitalism, but only in socialism. To accomplish this task, social democracy had to be the leadership not only of the workers, “but of all laboring and exploited classes, or, in other words, of the great majority of the population. We have already seen that the industrial proletariat tends to become the only working-class.”[1] It was the great mission of social democracy to merge Marxist theory with the working class movement in order to lead it to final victory: “Socialism as a doctrine certainly has its roots in modern economic relationships just like the class struggle of the proletariat, and just like the latter, it emerges out of the struggle against the poverty and misery of the masses that capitalism creates. But they arise simultaneously, not one out of the other, and on different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.” [2] Without the merger of the working class movement and revolutionary social democracy, Kautsky thought, the proletariat would merely struggle for day-to-day reforms, and socialism would remain a futile discussion among intellectuals.

It was Kautsky’s Marxist orthodoxy with its belief that socialism was inevitable that shaped a generation of socialists from the United States to the Russian Empire.

The Revisionist Heresy
Kautsky’s Marxism did not go unchallenged within the SPD. In 1896-1898, Eduard Bernstein wrote a series of articles that argued the time had come to revise Marxist theory, which amounted to renouncing socialist revolution as a goal and a call for the SPD to focus all their efforts on seeking social reform, and abandon the prospects of a social revolution.

Bernstein’s revisionist challenge threatened the entire edifice of Kautsky’s orthodoxy and the SPD’s raison d’être. Kautsky’s response restated his basic positions on class polarization, the difference between reforms and revolution, and the need for the conquest of power. This largely satisfied the SPD party leadership, who twice voted against Bernstein’s revisionism in 1899 and 1901.

However, strains were beginning to show at the seams of Kautsky’s Marxism. His orthodoxy could explain the past and predict a glorious socialist future, but it was of little use in present struggles. Kautsky tended toward fatalism and passivity in the here and now. He simply advocated that the SPD slowly accumulate its forces through a “strategy of attrition” by strengthening its apparatus and winning votes until they achieved a parliamentary majority. In practice, this was little different than what the revisionists argued. Despite what Kautsky may have believed, socialism as a goal receded into the horizon. At one point, he even stated: “[the SPD is] a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions.”[3]

The practical triumph of revisionism in the SPD was something that Kautsky was unwilling to confront since he perceived it largely as a theoretical issue and not an organizational one. For Kautsky and other orthodox Marxists, the unity of the SPD was something that needed to be maintained at all costs. The SPD’s powerful apparatus, millions of votes, and the support of the trade unions was a sign of the coming socialist future. In fact, he believed that the unity of the SPD was identical to the unity of the working class. It did not even matter to Kautsky that all members of the party did not share a common Marxist worldview: “One can be a good comrade without believing in the materialist conception of history, but one is in no sense a good comrade if one does not submit to the congresses of the party.”[4] All theoretical differences could be solved within the party, no matter how serious they were.

However, this dream of party unity and Kautsky’s historical schema would not survive a practical challenge of war and revolution.

The Bolshevik Challenge
In 1905, revolution erupted in Russia, and Kautsky offered strategic advice on the way forward. Kautsky angered the more moderate Mensheviks (who shared his orthodoxy) by advocating that the workers lead the revolution as opposed to subordinating themselves to the bourgeoisie. Kautsky declared: “The age of bourgeois revolutions, i.e. of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over in Russia… As soon as the proletariat appears as an independent class with independent revolutionary aims, the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class…”[5] It is no wonder that both Lenin and Trotsky saw Kautsky’s positions as endorsements of their own.

That Kautsky could be claimed by Trotsky and Lenin showcased the ambiguity of his own position. For one, Kautsky did not advocate permanent revolution as Trotsky did (the democratic revolution growing over to a socialist one). As Kautsky said, “It therefore seems unthinkable that the present revolution in Russia is already leading to the introduction of a socialist mode of production, even if it should bring social democracy to power temporarily.”[6] While Lenin and Trotsky believed that Czarism would not be toppled without an armed struggle (leading them to hail the December insurrection in Moscow), Kautsky argued instead: “the revolution must take place through methods of peace, not of war.”[7]

Still, Kautsky had placed himself on the left in those debates and hoped that the Russian Revolution would revitalize the SPD. The party bureaucracy remained immobile and continued on its conservative course. Kautsky buried whatever misgivings he had and accepted this state of affairs. After all, the SPD was playing the role that Kautsky had assigned to it. Once again as a champion of party unity, he refused to advocate any other course. To that end, when Rosa Luxemburg argued for the SPD to employ mass strikes to win meaningful reforms, Kautsky condemned her “rebel’s impatience” of trying to reach socialism by forcing the march of history and ignoring objective limitations..[8] Rather, Kautsky felt confident in waiting for socialism since he believed that history was on the party’s side.

The Test of War
Kautsky’s entire system was shattered with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The SPD ignored its solemn internationalist and anti-war commitments in order to support the Kaiser’s war effort. As he said in retrospect: “It is amazing that none of us who were there had the idea of raising the question: What to do if war breaks out? What attitude should the Socialist parties take in this war?”[9] Kautsky could offer no revolutionary path for the SPD to follow in the bloody maelstrom. Instead, Kautsky offered “left” rationalizations for the SPD’s pro-war position, which led them to publicly oppose strikes against the war and even collaborate to arrest revolutionary union leaders who organized them. Thus, Kautsky was politically impotent at a critical hour. By contrast, internationalists such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg called for revolutionary action against the war.

While Lenin had denounced Kautsky’s opportunism in the face of war, it was only following the Bolshevik Revolution that Kautsky became a “renegade.” In Terrorism and Communism, Kautsky condemned the Bolshevik Revolution on no uncertain terms for creating a minority Jacobin-style dictatorship that violated bourgeois democratic norms. Even though the Soviet Republic was fighting for its life against counter-revolutionaries, both Lenin and Trotsky took the time to respond to the slanders of their former mentor. Lenin denounced Kautsky for emptying Marxism of its revolutionary content and transforming it into something acceptable for liberals.

Trotsky said that by “abandoning the idea of a revolutionary dictatorship, Kautsky transforms the question of the conquest of power by the proletariat into a question of the conquest of a majority of votes by the Social Democratic Party in one of the electoral campaigns of the future…. This fetishism of the parliamentary majority represents a brutal repudiation, not only of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but of Marxism and of the revolution altogether.”[10] The Marxist Pope had at last become the Renegade who betrayed everything he claimed to believe in.

The Verdict
While Kautsky proclaimed his Marxist orthodoxy until his death in 1938, he remained a marginal figure in political life, ignored by both social democrats and communists. His orthodoxy had at last ripped apart at the seams. Kautsky could offer no viable response to the rise of fascism, beyond viewing it as an aberration from the inevitable march of history. This would be cold comfort to the SPD members languishing in Nazi jails. His last years were spent writing theoretically impoverished works on Marxism and vitriolic anti-communist tracts.

In his obituary for Karl Kautsky, Trotsky generously noted: “We remember Kautsky as our former teacher to whom we once owed a good deal, but who separated himself from the proletarian revolution and from whom, consequently, we had to separate ourselves.”[11] The younger Kautsky made invaluable and necessary contributions by spreading Marxist ideas, but ultimately his theoretical and organizational weaknesses proved to be his undoing. At decisive moments, when the situation called upon Kautsky to act, he failed the test. In the final instance, Kautsky’s Marxism could offer no practical revolutionary path forward to great convulsions, just assurances in the steady march of progress. Kautsky’s final legacy was in providing a “left” cover for imperialist war and an anti-communist “socialism” made safe for bourgeois liberalism.


[1] Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1910), 210.

[2] Quoted in Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony (Boston: Brill, 2014), 342.

[3] Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2007), 41.

[4] Quoted in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (New York: Verso Books, 1979), 127.

[5] Quoted in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, ed., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Boston: Brill, 2009), 605.

[6] Ibid. 607.

[7] Ibid. 179.

[8] Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983), 185.

[9] Quoted in Enzo Traverso, Fire And Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945 (New York: Verso, 2016), 38.

[10] Leon Trotsky, “Terrorism and Communism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch02.htm

[11] Leon Trotsky, “Karl Kautsky,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/11/kautsky.htm
Fair Use Notice
This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

The dawn of our liberation: The early days of the International Communist Women’s Movement-Daria Dyakonova

Posted by admin On October - 14 - 2018 Comments Off on The dawn of our liberation: The early days of the International Communist Women’s Movement-Daria Dyakonova


Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist Essays and Commentaries — On July 30, [1920] in the evening, slender columns of women workers wearing red kerchiefs and holding banners make their way to the Bolshoi Theater from remote districts and outskirts of Moscow. The slogans on the banners run: ‘Through the dictatorship of the proletariat in all countries to the full emancipation of women.’

“A chorus of women’s voices singing the International is heard in the streets of Moscow. Moscow proletarian women are joyfully marching to the opening of the First International Conference of Communist Women at the Bolshoi Theater. Foreign visitors are also joining in.

“By eight o’clock in the evening the theater is packed. Parterre and tiers are occupied by women workers. The stage is occupied by delegates from Germany, France, England, America, Mexico, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Finland, Norway, Latvia, Bulgaria, India, Georgia, Caucasus and Turkestan.”[2]

This is how revolutionary women described the opening of their first conference held in Moscow in July 1920. Twenty-one women representing 19 countries gathered that month to discuss women’s issues in the framework of the Second Congress of the Communist International (or the Comintern). The Comintern had been founded a year earlier, on Vladimir Lenin’s initiative, to replace a (Second) Socialist International which had discredited itself by militarist and nationalist policies during the World War I.

Women’s emancipation had long been an important point of socialist agenda. The Comintern’s program included total equality of rights of men and women in law and practice, integration of women into political life, free education and medical care for women, social measures to ease the burden of housework and childcare, and measures to do away with the sexual double standard for men and women.

Communism and feminism: partners, rivals or a unity?
Although the studies of the Comintern’s gender policies remain rare, many authoritative voices in western academia have tended to dismiss communist and especially Soviet policies toward women, as “largely inconsequential lip-service.”[3] The same dismissive attitude towards the gains of international communist women’s movement is largely present in scholarly contributions on socialist/communist women’s movements. Liberal feminists of the Cold War era as well as some more recent commentators highlighted that after the World War 2 women’s movements in socialist countries as well as allied international women’s organizations (such as Women’s International Democratic Federation and its American affiliate, the Congress of American Women) mobilized their memberships primarily to serve Party goals rather than mobilize the Party to serve women. The same scholars, by contrast, stressed the autonomous agency and political neutrality supposedly found in Western non-socialist feminist organizations.[4]

Socialist feminists in turn have insisted on important shortcomings of classic Marxist theory’s gender agenda: chiefly its inability to incorporate the centrality of the gender division of labour in all spheres and the lack of concern with sexuality and reproduction questions. It has also been argued that attempts so far to interweave socialist feminist critiques of classic Marxist theory and the history of the movements and political entities that tried to bring it into life remain inadequate.[5]

New and growing scholarship has recently nuanced and modified these interpretations, criticizing the reinforcement (after 1989) of the triumphalist Cold War paradigm. These new contributions posited that “liberal feminists underestimated the extent to which the program of women’s emancipation was a fundamental component of the overall communist program for rapid modernization,” which communist/socialist women believed was the best path to women’s autonomy.[6] It was argued that communist women working in state women’s and international socialist organizations strategically aligned their programs with larger Communist Party goals, seeing such policy as more efficient than using the so-called bourgeois feminist methods. This alignment resulted in significant achievements for women in terms of legal equality and family law, education, and formal labour participation, especially if one compares culturally similar socialist and non-socialist countries at similar stages of economic development. Finally, this scholarship stimulated the re-thinking of the origins of the so-called ”Second Wave Feminism,” suggesting that they were more diverse and complex than the received narrative allowed.[7]

This paper adopts this latter perspective to study the early days of the international Communist Women’s Movement (CWM). [8] It will focus on three points in particular: the CWM’s ideas on women’s emancipation (including the issue of housework and gender division of labour, reproduction, and childcare); relationship with non-communist women’s movements; and the problematic relationship with male comrades.

The First Conference of Communist women: A program for women’s emancipation
Unlike the Communist Youth International, which was organisationally independent of the Comintern, structures for Communist women were integrated into Communist parties. At the First Conference of Communist Women it was decided, however, to establish within parties special agitation institutions for women (to which men could belong as well), which were to coordinate work by local women’s committees on a branch level. By 1922 almost all European countries did indeed set up party structures for work among women.

Within the Comintern, an International Women’s Secretariat (IWS) associated with its Executive Committee was established, with headquarters first in Berlin and later in Moscow. A member of the IWS was also a member of the Comintern’s Executive. From the start the Women’s Secretariat underlined its transnational character and urged the exchange of experience and information among different countries. This was to be achieved through annual meetings of Communist women and through the publication of an international monthly magazine Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (Communist Women’s International), published until 1926.

In practice, however, international ties and exchange of information and experience developed slowly. In 1921 at the Second Conference of Communist Women, the outstanding German Communist women’s leader Clara Zetkin pointed to the Secretariat’s loose international ties due to the disorganisation of the railways in Europe, the difficulty of maintaining personal connections and the hostile political climate.[9]

The First Conference of Communist Women set up a commission to write the “Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement,” which Clara Zetkin drafted. The “Theses” highlighted that the “full social equality with men in reality and actual fact and not just on the passive pages of dead law books was to be achieved through the abolishment of private property and the integration of the activity of women into the “social production of a new order free of exploitation and subjugation.”[10]

The “Theses” also defined the more specific tasks of the CWM, depending on where the work was to be done: in socialist, capitalist, or pre-capitalist countries. One of the important points was the transformation of housekeeping – “the most backward, deformed, and stultifying of the old guild handicrafts” – into a social industry. Alexandra Kollontai, a prominent Russian women’s rights fighter, wrote in this connection in 1920: “The individual household is dying. It is giving way in our society to collective housekeeping. Instead of the working woman cleaning her flat, the communist society can arrange for men and women whose job it is to go round in the morning cleaning rooms.”[11] The idea was not very new. It was, however, the first time that the issue of housekeeping and labour division appeared as a crucial point of a socialist program for women’s liberation. In the nascent Soviet state housework was recognized as major means of women’s subordination, and the idea of creation of public amenities offering different kinds of services (children’s day care, public kitchens, canteens, communal laundries and cleaning facilities, clothes-mending centres, etc.) seemed to be taken seriously. For women in capitalist and pre-capitalist countries the “Theses” suggested striving for establishment of such institutions. In this way the Communist program put the women’s question in the very centre of the socialist project, underlining that women’s emancipation was not only the consequence but the very goal of socialist transformation. [12]

Communist women and bourgeois feminists
Communist women underlined their class identity in quite firm terms: the 1920s conference’s “Theses” stated that “the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement have proved incapable of securing full rights and humanity for the whole of womenkind as these aimed merely at reforming the capitalist order for the benefit of wives and daughters of the possessing classes.”[13] This, however, did not mean that the Communist women were against all cooperation with non-proletarian women’s movements.

One of the bourgeois feminists’ demands that Communists saw as controversial, at least for a certain period of time, was that of universal suffrage. Initially some were suspicious of bourgeois feminists’ demands for universal right to vote.  Revolutionary Marxists in the Second International, although they unconditionally supported universal suffrage since 1889, opposed the reforms that would extend voting rights only to privileged women – given the property requirements associated with the right to vote that denied vote to both men and women of lower social classes. They also did not view suffrage as a heal-all that would complete women’s emancipation. Thus in 1908 Alexandra Kollontai pointed out that “for the feminists the achievement of equal rights with men within the framework of the contemporary capitalist world [was] a concrete ‘end in itself’; for proletarian women equal rights [was] merely a means to be used in the continuing struggle against the economic enslavement of the working class.” [14] By 1917 support for suffrage proved ultimately unifying, in particular in the Russian context. Kollontai then advocated granting women equal voting rights in more unequivocal terms stressing that this would complete the revolution.[15]

Communist women were ready to cooperate with bourgeois feminists in other fields as well. They openly recognized the importance of many of feminists’ demands and achievements. The “Theses” admitted that “carrying through these [bourgeois] demands, of course, entails a fundamental change – and one not to be underestimated – namely, that bourgeois society and its state officially abandon the old prejudice about inferiority of the female sex and recognize women’s social equality with equal right.” [16] Non-Communist feminists themselves in the early 1920s interest expressed in communist ideas on “women’s question” and were ready to promote them. This was the case of the revolutionary Women’s Union of Holland and a number of feminist newspapers in France. [17] In Canada the idea materialized in the foundation in 1924 of the Canadian Federation of Women’ Labour Leagues (CFWLL) where Communist Women actively collaborated with non-Communist activists. Communist Women in Canada were also active in a number of women’s sections of organizations based on ethnic and linguistic communities, such as the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA). Memberships of such organizations had diverse left viewpoints and raised women’s agendas that were not always considered important by the CP leadership. Moreover, throughout the 1920s they followed the united front policy of cooperation with certain labour, women’s and farmers’ organizations that were “reformist” in nature.[18] In Germany the Red Women and Girls’ League (Roter Frauen und Mädchen Bund) was set up in late 1925 to broaden the female working-class constituency. The League succeeded in recruiting women who were reluctant to join the KPD by politicizing issues that working-class women faced in their daily lives, such as the prices of everyday women’s wages, welfare, and reproductive rights.[19] This latter issue was an important point of CWM’s agenda.

Motherhood as a shared responsibility
The First Conference’s “Theses” stressed that it was only the “old petty-bourgeois, reactionary ideology” that saw giving birth and taking care of children as the “only true natural calling” of women, thus attributing an inferior role to them.[20] Although Communist women obviously wanted to dissociate themselves from this traditional vision of women’s role in procreation and upbringing of children, the “Theses” did not elaborate the question of reproductive rights and the issue of abortion. This does not mean, however, that communist women did not pay attention to this question. In 1920 the Soviet government legalized abortions. The IWS followed up by circulating Soviet literature on abortion among Communist women’s sections outside Russia.[21]

A theoretical framework for Communists’ ideas on reproduction and motherhood was first defined by August Bebel. It was later developed by Alexandra Kollontai who published in 1916 her 600-page Society and Motherhood. Kollontai saw childbearing as a social responsibility, shared between the family and society.[22] Her idea was that not only the mother (or the family) but also the socialized institutions should take care of the children’s physical and psychological well-being, from infancy. Communist women, following the Soviet example where 1918 decrees legally protected motherhood and established socialized child care,[23] integrated this idea into the First Conference’s “Theses”: the state was to facilitate a harmonious combination of motherhood with employment through setting up welfare institutions to protect maternity, children, and youth.[24]

Given the demographic context of the post-World War I era and the fact that birth control was then advocated by many as a means for population control and eugenics, Communist women resisted attempts to stigmatize women for having either too few or too many children. They saw abortion as necessary so long as society was unable to guarantee the material means for a prosperous and happy childhood for all.[25] This did not prevent them from protesting against anti-abortion laws, which they did in France and (even) in Italy of the early 1920s. In Germany Communist women led a campaign against anti-abortion legislation under the quite ahead-of-its-time slogan “Your body belongs to you.” In Denmark they set up the Working Women’s Information Bureau, which made the information on birth control available to women. In Canada, where abortion was then illegal, Communists joined with non-Communist women to demand the de-criminalization of fertility control and establishment of “Mothers Clinics,” which would provide information on contraception and free contraceptives. These initiatives often had a grassroots character, springing up independently of the IWS.[26]

Women and men in the Comintern and Communist parties
Research on the Comintern’s women – scarce as it is – has noted the de-radicalisation of the CWM from mid to late 1920s. It has been argued that by the end of the decade the movement’s aim was no longer the advancement of women but their mobilization for the advancement of the Comintern.[27] The movement indeed became weaker as the IWS was downgraded from an autonomous body to a department of the Comintern’s Executive Committee. The weakening and subsequent de-radicalization has been attributed to the rise of the Stalinist system in the USSR, the domination of the Soviet CP within the international communist movement, and also the increasing centralisation of the Comintern’s apparatus.[28]

These interpretations, certainly, reveal important truths as regards the history of the CWM. By mid-1930s the CPSU indeed would become a major (although not omnipotent) decision-maker within the Comintern. Simultaneously in the Soviet Union the old conservatism would revive and bring about significant retreats as far as women’s rights are concerned – the most important of which was the decision – even though not irreversible – to re-criminalize abortion (1936). Even though the Soviet retreat was not omnipresent and, arguably, did not prevent “the emergence of novel and unconventional gender configurations during the 1930s,”[29] it did affect Communist movement worldwide – although to varying degrees in different countries. These interpretations, however, appear to overlook another important factor of the CWM’s decline – the male chauvinism and resistance of Communist men – both leaders and rank and file – to female activism within the CPs.

Such attitude on the part of male comrades was one of the questions that communist women discussed at their first conference in Moscow. According to the French delegate, within the pre-war socialist movements male workers were seen to “manifest not only indifference but even hostility towards the matter of women workers’ organization.” The Danish delegate then posited that “male workers were not eager to involve their female comrades into social and political life, but preferred to see their wives as keepers of hearth and home.”[30] Similar attitudes – chauvinism in private life – were not infrequent within the Communist movement.

Clara Zetkin was then well aware of such tendencies. In 1921 she pointed out that “leaders all too often underrated the importance” of the CWM, because “they [saw] it as only ‘women’s business’.”[31] Zetkin stressed that “in most countries, the gains of the movement [CWM] have been achieved without support from the Communist Party, indeed in some instances against its open or hidden opposition.” At the same time Zetkin inferred that chauvinistic attitudes were more characteristic of national parties’ male memberships rather then of the Comintern’s Executive, which by contrast, “provided moral, political, and financial resources to sustain the efforts in each country to gather the Communist women in the parties.”[32]

The situation was not of course the same everywhere. The achievements of Communist women in different countries were uneven. During the 1920s, Communist Parties of northern and eastern Europe appeared to significantly increase their female memberships, while in France, Spain, and Italy women continued to represent less than 10 % of members.[33] However, even this proportion was high compared to women’s penetration of bourgeois politics at that time, or compared to women’s presence in the Comintern’s pre-1919 parties, some of which had no women at all.

Despite the Comintern’s equality discourse, the project was unable to escape the impact of a retreat on women’s emancipation in the Soviet Union and to fully overcome chauvinist pressures tending to exclude women from the revolutionary movement

To sum up, the CWM, despite some shortcomings, marked a historical advance, particularly regarding the interaction of women’s liberation and revolution.

Although the CWM firmly linked the struggle for the liberation of women with the emancipation of the working class, it recognized that radicalization among women was present in all social layers. The revolutionary women thus favoured cooperation with non-Communist currents among women on such issues as universal suffrage and reproductive rights.

Communist women leaders became prominent political actors and, in this capacity, together with men, contributed significantly to revolutionary struggle. In addition, the international network of Communist women also fought for a number of specific measures that concerned only women. Such gains were seen as steps towards, not merely as the result of, the socialist transformation of society.

This text is based on a talk given by Daria Dyakonova in a French-language panel, “L’aurore de notre libération” at “The Great Transition: Preparing a World Beyond Capitalism” in Montreal May 20, 2018. Other panel participants were Aziz Fall, Ameth Lô, and John Riddell.

For the other presentations given in this panel, see “The Long March to Post-Capitalist Transition: Pan-Africanist Perspectives” (Ameth Lô) and “The League against Imperialism: An Early Attempt at Global Anti-Colonial Unity”


[1] Inessa Armand quoted in Barbara Evans Clements, Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Aleksandra Kollontai (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1979), 155.

[2] Alexandra Kollontai and Polina Vinogradskaia (eds.), Otchet o pervoi mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii kommunistok [Report on the First International Conference of Communist Women]. Moscow: Gosizdatelstvo, 1921, 19-20.

[3] Anna Krylova, “Bolshevik Feminism and Gender Agendas of Communism” in Silvio Pons, Stephen A. Smith (eds.), The Cambridge History of Communism, Vol. 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country, 1917-1941, Cambridge University Press, 2017, 425.

[4] See for example Barbara Wolfe Jancar, Women under Communism, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978; Funk, Nanette and Magda Mueller (1993), Gender Politics and Post-Communism: Reflections from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, New York: Routledge; Brunnbauer, Ulf (2009); “‘The Most Natural Function of Women.’ Ambiguous Party Policies and Female Experiences in Socialist Bulgaria,” in Gender Politics and Everyday Life in State Socialist Eastern and Central Europe, New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Einhorn, Barbara (2010), “Mass Dictatorship and Gender Politics: Is the Outcome Predictable?” in J. Lim et al. (eds.) Gender Politics and Mass Dictatorship, Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 34-62; Partridge, Damani (2012), Hypersexuality and Headscarves: Race, Sex and Citizenship in the New Germany, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[5] Sonia Kruks, Rayna Rapp, and Marilyn Young (eds). Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989, Introduction, 8. For Marxist feminist critiques see also Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: toward a Unitary Theory, Leiden: Brill, 2013; Sharon Smith, Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation, Chicago: Haymarket, 2012.

[6] Kristen Ghodsee, “State-Socialist Women’s Organization in Cold War Perspective. Revisiting the work of Maxine Molyneux.” Aspasia, (10, 2016): 111-121, 115.

[7] Haan Francisca de (2010), “Continuing Cold War Paradigms in the Western Historiography of Transnational Women’s Organisations: The Case of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF),” Women’s History Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, 547-573, 564-565.

[8] The name (Communist Women’s Movement) was not an official term and is rarely used in Comintern’s documents. But this was how women comrades commonly spoke of it, see for example John Riddell. ed. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Leiden: Brill, 2012, 838.

[9] “Second International Conference of Communist Women,” June 9 session, published in Moscow, June 11, 1921.

[10] John Riddell. ed. Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, New York: Pathfinder, 1991, vol 2, 977-978.

[11] Kollontai, Alexandra. “Communism and the Family” (1920) in Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, edited by Alix Holt. London: Allison & Busy, 1977.

[12] Elizabeth Waters, “In the Shadow of the Comintern: the Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-1943” in Sonia Kruks; Rayna R Reiter; Marilyn Blatt Young, eds. Promissory Notes : Women in the Transition to Socialism, New York, Monthly Review Press: 1989, 32-33.

[13] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 978.

[14] See Kollontai, Introduction to The Social Basis of the Women’s Question. https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1908/social-basis.htm

[15]Goldberg Ruthchild, Rochelle. “Misbehaving women and the Russian Revolutions of 1917”, ASEEES blog: International Women’s day, March 17, 2017.

[16] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 978.

[17] “Second International Conference of Communist Women,” June 9 session, published in Moscow, June 11, 1921; Waters, 36.

[18] See Margarett Hobbs and Joanne Sangster (eds.), The Woman Worker, 1926-1929, St. John’s, Nfld.: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 1999.

[19] See “Second International Conference of Communist Women,” Report of Session of June 12, Published in Moscow, June 15, 1921, Sewell, 268-269.

[20] Riddell, Workers of the World, 983.

[21] “Second International Conference of Communist Women,”June 9 session, published in Moscow, June 11, 1921.

[22] A. Kollontai, “Vvedenie” in Obshchestvo i materinstvo, in Marksistskii Feminizm. Kollektsiia tekstov A.M. Kollontai (Tver: Feminist Press-Rossia, 2003), 130-32, quoted in Anna Krylova, “Bolshevik Feminism and Gender Agendas of Communism,” in The Cambridge History of Communism, vol. 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country, 1917-1941, edited by Silvio Pons, Stephen A. Smith, 424-448, Cambridge University Press, 2017, 431.

[23] The 1918 Labour Code provided at least one paid 30-minute break every three hours to feed a baby. The maternity insurance program decreed a fully paid maternity leave of eight weeks, nursing brakes and factory rest facilities for working mothers, free pre- and post-natal care and allowances. At the same time the 1918 Family Code forbade adoption in the belief that the state would provide better care for an orphan than an individual family. See И.Я.Киселев, Трудовое право России, Москва, 2001 (http://www.hist.msu.ru/Labour/Law/kodex_18.htm#f1 – retrieved April 18, 2018); Сажина Н. С. “Социальная политика в отношении материнства и детства в первые годы советской власти” // Вестник БГУ. 2013. №2. URL: https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/sotsialnaya-politika-v-otnoshenii-materinstva-i-detstva-v-pervye-gody-sovetskoy-vlasti (retrieved April 18, 2018); Wendy Z. Goldman. Women, the State and Revolution. Cambridge, GBR : Cambridge University Press, 1993, 52.

[24] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 989.

[25] Waters, 41; John Riddell. “The Communist Women’s Movement (1921-1926),” June 12, 2011.

[26] Margarett Hobbs and Joanne Sangster, eds. The Woman Worker, 217-222 ; Waters, 41-42.

[27] Waters, 51.

[28] See for example Waters, Studer and Bernhard H. Bayerlein.

[29] Krylova, Soviet women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 23

[30] Kollontai and Vinogradskaia (eds.). Otchet, 61.

[31] Kommunistische Fraueninternationale, vol. 1, no. 2–3 (1921), p. 55 quoted in Riddell, John. “The Communist Women’s Movement (1921-1926).”

[32] See Sewell, Sara Ann. “Bolshevizing Communist Women: the Red Women and Girls’ League in Weimar Germany,” Central European History, 45:2 (2012).

[33] In the USSR the CPSU had 14% of women; Germany – 16,5 % ; Czechoslovakia – 24 % in 1929; France – 3%-4% in 1924; Italy – 1%-2% between 1921 and 1925. See Sewell, 280 ; Brigitte Studer. The Transnational World of the Cominternians. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 48; Christine Bard, and Jean-Louis Robert. “The French Communist Party and Women, 1920-1939,” 323 and Mary Gibson. “Women and the Left in the Shadow of Fascism in Interwar Italy,” 398 in Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves, Women and Socialism/ Socialism and Women. New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1998; Gibson, 398.


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Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism-Rjurik Davidson

Posted by admin On October - 7 - 2018 Comments Off on Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism-Rjurik Davidson







Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism

Written by Rjurik Davidson
Part One: Active or Passive Marxism?

A decisive confrontation



In May 1924, near the small town of Como, close to the border of Italy and Switzerland, the two great figures of early Italian communism faced each other at a meeting of the Parti Communista d’Italia (PCI) leadership.

On the one side stood Amadeo Bordiga, the dominant personality in the early years of the PCI. Bordiga was a charismatic man of uncommon drive and confidence, traits that made him a natural leader. For three years, since the party’s foundation in 1921, Bordiga had been its unofficial head. His policies had been outlined in the “Rome Theses”, provisionally adopted at the previous party conference, which emphasised separation of the communist party from all other currents.

For Bordiga, the Socialist Party (PSI) was as execrable as Mussolini’s fascists. The task, as he saw it, was to tear away the PSI’s support by strictly counterposing the communist current to them. In particular, he was against any fusion with the Third International (Terzini) socialists, the left wing of the PSI who claimed adherence to the policies of the Comintern. Indeed, the Third International had been promoting a merger between the groups for some time, but Bordiga was against it. As his Rome Theses argued, “the aggregation to the party of other parties or parts detached from parties…does not bring with it an ensemble of elements that can be effectively assimilated en bloc; on the contrary, it impairs the solidity of the old party’s political position…”[1]

Bordiga’s opponent at the Como conference, Antonio Gramsci, had been the pre-eminent leader of a group from Turin (which included other celebrated figures, Palmiro Togliatti, Umberto Terracini and Angelo Tasca), who had been centrally involved in the factory council movement of 1919-20. A small, hunchbacked man with an immense capacity for work despite his constant struggles with ill health, Gramsci had made his name as a gifted writer of iconoclastic articles that theorised the councils, especially for the newspaper he had edited during the “red years”, Ordine Nuovo. Even at this early stage, his polemical style had a kind of involution to it and often offered strikingly fresh formulations, indicative of his highly original way of seeing the world.[2]

Never entirely content with Bordiga’s leadership, Gramsci had for a year been reconstituting the leadership of the PCI around new policies. He had constructed a new “Centre” against Bordiga’s “Left” and the party’s “Right” led by Angelo Tasca. When the fascists had arrested Bordiga and up to 5,000 mid-level party activists in 1923,[3] Gramsci had assumed de facto leadership of the party and a new executive had been appointed under the direction of the Third International. Under Gramsci’s leadership, the PCI ran a joint list called Unità proletaria with the Terzini in April 1924, a month before the Como conference.[4] The PCI acquired thirteen seats in parliament and the Terzini five – a vindication of Gramsci’s new line.[5]

Now in an alberghetto (inn) in a secluded mountain valley near Como, Gramsci faced his first important party gathering, a consultative conference where the new leadership would explain its position and defend the resolution proposed for the conference (and opposed by resolutions from both the Left and Right groupings). Gramsci had the floor and tension must have crackled through the audience as he spoke, for he was facing the mid-level leaders, most of whom supported Bordiga. Sixty-seven officials attended, including 46 secretaries of the regional federations.[6] Bordiga himself was present, having been acquitted of the government’s charges against him. After his release, he had refused to rejoin the party’s leading bodies: the changes in political line and the composition of the new leadership were anathema to him.

In his quiet, reedy voice, Gramsci calmly assessed the state of the party and outlined the development of the Centre of which he was the leader. The Ordine Nuovo group had always allied with the party’s Left against the Right, whom Gramsci considered “liquidationist”. But the situation in Italy had changed in recent years, he explained:

In 1919 and 1920, the whole working population – from the white collar workers to the North and the capital to the peasants of the South – was following, albeit unconsciously, the general movement of the industrial proletariat. Today the situation has changed, and only through a long, slow process of political reorganization will the proletariat be able to return to being the dominant factor in the situation. We consider that this work cannot be carried out, if we continue to follow the orientation which comrade Bordiga would like the party to continue to follow… [I]t is undeniable that our movement lacks the support of the majority of the proletariat.[7]

At this point, Bordiga called out: “We would have it, if we had not changed our tactics towards the Socialist Party! In any case, we are in no hurry”.

Gramsci replied: “Well we are in a hurry. There are situations in which ‘not being in a hurry’ leads to defeat”.[8]

For Bordiga, the essential thing was the clear separation of the communist party from all competing forces. The revolutionary movement would inevitably bring the working class into action, at which point the party would be ready. Bordiga’s position on this had always been consistent.[9]

In Gramsci’s eyes, this was an apocalyptic approach with theoretical roots in a mechanical Marxism, a kind of inversion of the Second International’s theoretical outlook, in which socialism was an inevitability.[10] But nothing would happen automatically, Gramsci believed. “Predestination does not exist for individuals, and even less does it do so for parties”, he wrote during this period.[11] During the “red years”, the Socialist Party had adopted a purely verbal “revolutionism” but didn’t carry out any action, and was thus chiefly responsible for the defeat of the factory occupations in 1919 and 1920. What difference, Gramsci asked in another article, “would there be between us and the Socialist Party if we too…abandoned ourselves to fatalism? If we cherished the sweet illusion that events cannot fail to unfold according to a fixed line of development (the one foreseen by us), in which they will inevitably find the system of dykes and canals which we have prepared for them, be channelled by this system and take historical form and power in it?”[12]

For Gramsci, people had always made their own history, and Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, which emphasised the active side of Marxism, remained touchstones for him. Gramsci thus emerged from a different tradition from that of the Second International, laced as it was with positivism and evolutionism. Indeed, his intellectual horizons were formed not by Kautsky or Plekhanov, but rather by the giants of Italian Hegelianism, Croce and Gentile, the original philosopher of “praxis” Antonio Labriola, and the French anarchist Georges Sorel.[13] Like his philosophical sibling, Georg Lukács, Gramsci adopted a critique of bourgeois science and a humanism fundamentally at odds with the scientism of the Second International. “The tenacious will of man has replaced natural law, the preordained order of things of the pseudo-scientists”, he wrote in his early Crocean phase.[14] The theoretical consequences of this philosophical lineage are clear. In Gramsci, we rarely read of the laws of history that we might find in the work of Leon Trotsky, for example (indeed, it was for the “mechanical” elements in his Marxism that Gramsci would later criticise the Russian leader).[15]

The danger of such a position is, of course, subjectivism (evident in Gramsci’s early analyses of the Russian Revolution, his famous article on the revolution “against Capital” and a second on “The Russian Utopia”).[16] Yet if Gramsci’s early Crocean writings flirted with subjectivism, by the time the factory council movement of 1919-1920 had been defeated, he had altered his focus. He cleverly inverted the terms of his position – maintaining the active element as the primary theoretical component – and began to ask, if they are capable of it, why don’t people make their own history? This in turn led him to questions about the forms and institutions through which bourgeois hegemony is constructed, one of his lasting concerns. From then on, he reintegrated the subjective into a new notion of the objective, and it became a central part of a study of a complex totality.[17]

However one conceives of this emphasis on the active element, all those committed to a practical politics must accept an emphasis on it – even if it is mediated by structural elements – because it is the precondition of political strategy: all strategy depends on the belief that groups and collectives can intervene with definite effects. Indeed, Gramsci believed this outlook was essential for the PCI if it were to make the transition between an organisation of propaganda and agitation to a mass party of action. As Togliatti was to say later, Gramsci’s group was able to make “real qualitative progress in their ability both to understand objective situations, national and international, and to apply to these situations not only propaganda and agitation, but genuine political action” [my emphasis].[18]

Part Two: The Complexities of Strategy

The Third International and the geo-politics of strategy

Gramsci’s decision to work with the Terzini was a part of his acceptance of the policies of the Third International, as elaborated by their early congresses and which was later codified as Leninism. In this sense, Leninism is the strategy of building an organisation of militants, which would act as a vanguard of a differentiated and stratified working class. This party would struggle against all cases of oppression, no matter who was suffering, and in so doing win the hegemony of the class and its allies. Yet because working class consciousness was uneven and often found itself caught in the cul-de-sacs of capitalist ideology, a complex political strategy composed of variegated tactics was required. At some point during this process, a revolutionary upsurge would produce a situation of dual power, in which the masses would forge their own state, likely in the form of workers’ councils, break apart the old state and construct their own in its place.[19]

Endorsing these policies, Gramsci applied it in his own specific mode of reasoning, with his own particular inflections and emphases. Within certain limits, he extended the theory and developed a “Gramscian Leninism”, which would form the basis of many of the themes he later developed and which appear in the Prison Notebooks.

Gramsci had been won to Leninism when he had been the Italian representative in Russia from 1922-1923. There he had participated in the day-to-day running of the Third International, attended meetings of the Comintern’s Executive Committee (ECCI), and come to know personally the leaders of the Russian revolution. In November 1922, Gramsci met with Lenin in a private discussion, where they discussed the “south” of Italy, the Italian Socialist Party and the possibility of its fusion with the PCI.[20] During this important meeting, which until recently has remained relatively unknown, Gramsci outlined his “profound” differences with Bordiga, but pointed out that Bordiga claimed the allegiance of the majority of the party and hence it had been necessary to follow his direction. Around the same time, in November and December 1922, Gramsci attended the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, which was to have a powerful impact on him: echoes of it would be found in his subsequent thought and writing.

The first key strategic question on which he and Bordiga differed – a question that has wound its way through subsequent socialist history, resulting in political caesuras everywhere – was whether the Leninist strategy was applicable to the West or whether it applied only to Russia. This problem had arisen in the debates of the Third International as it had struggled to comprehend the defeat of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe between 1917 and 1921. Indeed, when Gramsci arrived in Moscow, the Third International was undergoing something of an unacknowledged theoretical crisis. While the revolutions of the other European countries had shared certain key features with the Russian revolution, the proletariat of the former had also shown an allegiance to reformist forces that was not seen in Russia. Whatever the errors of Marxist organisations or groupings during the revolutions in Italy, Germany, Finland, Hungary and elsewhere, it was clear that sociological and cultural factors had also played a part.[21]

In his reflections on this question, Trotsky’s report on the NEP and the world revolution emphasised the differences between the Russian revolution and challenges facing the European working classes. In Europe, he argued, the “bourgeoisie is more intelligent, more farsighted; it is not wasting time. Everything that can be set foot against us is being mobilised by it right now. The revolutionary proletariat will thus encounter on its road to power not only the combat vanguards of the counter-revolution but also its heaviest reserves… By way of compensation, after the proletarian overturn, the vanquished bourgeoisie will no longer dispose of powerful reserves from which it could draw forces for prolonging the civil war”.[22]

As he coalesced his new grouping three months before the Como Conference, Gramsci referred to this idea. In a letter dated 9 February 1924, which became one the PCI’s most important historical documents, he argued that:

[Bordiga] thinks that for the more developed countries of central and western Europe, this [the Russian] tactic is inadequate and 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 be the organisation of the party as an end in itself… I think that the situation is quite different. Firstly, because the political conception of the Russians 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 altogether more complex and long-term than those which were necessary for the Bolsheviks in the period between March and November 1917.[23]

This formulation is of particular interest, because here Gramsci defends the “Russian” strategic outlook against Bordiga’s mechanical view that focused on the purity of the party and the inevitability of revolutionary “development” of the situation. At the same time, it asserts the essential difference between the “east” and “west” in terms that prefigure his famous distinction in the Prison Notebooks. The difference here, Gramsci asserts, is to be found in the existence of the political superstructures and the labour aristocracy, which, interestingly, he equates with each other. The labour aristocracy and bureaucracy, we must remember, were in Zinoviev’s (and Lenin’s) memorable phrase, “agents of the bourgeoisie, destined to demoralize systematically the labor movement and to inculcate it with the virus of opportunism”. In other words, they were “the most reliable advance guards of the imperialist bourgeoisie in the camp of the working class”.[24] As a result, as Lenin was to reaffirm, they must be “driven out of the trade unions” and the workers’ movement.[25]

Gramsci pointed out that, while in Russia the party led both trade union and political struggle against tsarism, in western Europe “an increasing division of labour grew up between the trade-union organisation and the political organization of the working class. In the trade-union field, the reformist and pacifist tendency developed at an increasing pace; in other words, the influence of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat grew steadily stronger”.[26]

For this reason, both at the Como conference and later in 1926, Gramsci insisted that “social democracy, although it still to a great extent conserves its social base in the proletariat, must so far as its ideology and the political function it fulfils are concerned be considered, not as a right wing of the working class movement, but as a left wing of the bourgeoisie”.[27] Though the PSI may have initially emerged from the workers’ movement, it had failed the challenges before it, developed in a particular direction, and during the red years of 1919-1920 “was to a great extent the vehicle for [the] bourgeois ideology within the Northern proletariat”, in particular their prejudices toward the “southerners”.[28] Indeed, this helped explain why both the PSI and the more right wing PSU disdainfully refused joint actions with the communist party.[29] That is, for Gramsci, the reformist socialist party was in the first instance an instrument of bourgeois hegemony and the task was to break its working class supporters away from the party. Here he was echoing Lenin’s argument that the British Labour Party was “a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns”.[30]

It was not Bordiga’s Left who objected to the claim that social democracy was the “left wing” of the bourgeoisie – since they themselves tended to simply conflate social democracy with the right wing parties – but Tasca’s Right, whom Gramsci considered “liquidationist”. Tasca argued that “It is true that social-democratic ideology is a reflection of the bourgeoisie’s influence on the working-class movement… But this does not take away the class character or social structure of the workers’ movement, even when it follows social democracy. I therefore ask that this point be reworked…”.[31] Gramsci rejected Tasca’s argument and the Comintern’s delegate Humbert-Droz, who was present at the meeting, agreed with him: “It is true that social-democracy sometimes has a social base in the proletariat, but it is a left wing of the bourgeoisie because of the political function which it fulfils”.[32] The task was thus to ultimately “disintegrate” it, that is to tear away the support of those sections of the working class that still loyally followed it.

Whatever one’s typology of social democracy, for Gramsci – again prefiguring a famous formulation in the Prison Notebooks – argued that “in the advanced capitalist countries, the ruling class possesses political and organizational reserves which it did not possess, for instance, in Russia. This means that even the most serious economic crises do not have immediate repercussions in the political sphere”.[33] If in the 9 February letter Gramsci makes a distinction between Russia and western and central Europe, elsewhere he divides Europe into advanced western Europe and the “peripheral states”, which include Italy, Poland, Spain and Portugal (and even France), where “a broad stratum of intermediate classes stretches between the proletariat and capitalism: classes which seek to carry on, and to a certain sense succeed in carrying on, policies of their own, which often influence broad strata of the proletariat, but which particularly affect the peasant masses”.[34] In Gramsci’s view, Italy still stands on the periphery and yet, as we have seen in his debate with Bordiga, as part of “western and central Europe” it maintains some characteristics of the advanced capitalist societies too.[35]

Thus for Gramsci it behoved Marxists to distinguish between the more developed capitalisms and the less developed – these were variations of manifest importance. Yet such geopolitical differences did not mean that the Russian perspectives were obsolete in Italy – or in the “advanced capitalist” societies – but rather that they were more important. Striking a different tone from Lenin, who tended to emphasise the similarity of the strategy needed for West and East, Gramsci argued that Leninist strategy must be developed in greater detail precisely because institutionalised the reformism and complex capitalist development (of “civil society”, as he would later develop the idea) made the terrain even more variegated and intricate. It was to this task that he had set himself since his return from Russia.

The temporalities of political strategy

Central to Gramsci’s strategic ideas, the tactic that would need to be “developed in greater detail”, was the policy of the united front, adopted after the Third Congress of the Third International and elaborated at the Fourth. According to this tactic, in a situation where the communist party was in a minority, and on the defensive (as they were in Italy since the triumph of Mussolini’s fascists in 1922), it should carry out joint actions with larger parties that commanded the allegiance of significant sections of the working class.

Gramsci’s differences here were not only about the nature of strategy towards the PSI but also in their assessments of fascism, a phenomenon still relatively untheorised in the Comintern. For Gramsci had always taken this new movement more seriously than Bordiga, for whom fascism was not fundamentally different from other versions of reactionary bourgeois rule. By contrast, Gramsci had argued as early as 1920 that if the proletariat did not take power Italy would face “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…”.[36] Over the next few years, Gramsci would develop an original analysis of fascism, as a movement of a decaying petty bourgeoisie, a savage recrudescence of base and barbaric outlooks, and ultimately a “servant of capitalism and landed property” and “agent of capitalism”.[37] If his time in Russia had influenced Gramsci theoretically, fascism had shocked him into seeing these strategic developments’ decisive relevance. In this new context, he saw, the unity of the working class became a pressing exigency.

Like other classical Marxists, Gramsci believed that working class consciousness was brought about by activity rather than pure education. The point of the united front policy was to unify the working class around concrete struggles and in doing so to win the bulk of the class to the side of the communist party. Once he had accepted this line of reasoning, Gramsci’s entire orientation during this period was to build working class unity in action. He suggested the name of the party paper be L’Unità to reflect the policy.[38]

By contrast, Bordiga’s Rome Theses had polemicised against the united front tactic.[39] When Gramsci and Bordiga clashed a second time at the Como conference, it was over a particular form of the united front, expressed in the slogan for a “workers’ and peasants’ bloc” or “workers’ and peasants’ government”, which flowed (in the words of the Comintern’s Theses on Tactics) “unavoidably from the entire united-front tactic”..[40] Again, the Rome Theses and the Left’s Como Conference Resolution had rejected this notion but the Unità proletaria election campaign with the Terzini had been a practical application of it.

At the Como conference Gramsci outlined the party’s new orientation towards the slogan of a “workers’ and peasants’ government”. In his eyes, bourgeois policy was to align itself with the labour aristocracy and bureaucracy of the north against the south, which became a kind of colonial outpost, denigrated by northern “common sense”. It was essential, Gramsci argued, that the working class work win the support of the peasantry, a position he had held since his Ordine Nuovo days.

“Why call it a ‘bloc’ and not simply Communist Party?” called out Bordiga, re-emphasising his isolationist view. “Does the Communist Party not have the alliance between workers and peasants in its programme?” Gramsci replied:

It is necessary to present things in the way one considers most effective to move even the most backward sections of the masses. Not all the workers can understand the whole development of the revolution… We must take account of such states of mind, and seek means to overcome them… If one of us went to my village to talk about “struggle against capitalists”, he would be told that “capitalists” do not exist in Sardinia. Yet even these masses must be won over. We have the possibility, given precisely the conditions created by fascism, to initiate a mass anti-reactionary movement in the South. But it is necessary to win over these masses, and this can be done only by participating in the struggles which they launch for partial victories and partial demands. The workers’ and peasants’ government slogan must serve to bring together and synthesize the content of these partial struggles, in a programme which can be understood by even the most backward masses.[41]

For Gramsci, the slogan was a popular way of posing the problem of a proletarian and peasant dictatorship. As one Comintern formulation explained, the slogan was not to be considered “a phase of democratic transition but simply like a method of agitation and of revolutionary mobilisation”.[42] Gramsci didn’t believe, as Tasca’s Right did, that a “worker’s and peasant’s government can be constituted on the basis of the bourgeois parliament”.[43] In Gramsci’s eyes this would lead to serious “deviations”. But the conflict with Bordiga had a different inflection. For Gramsci, it was essential to maintain contact with the popular classes and to express the Marxist perspective in terms they could understand. Later, Togliatti summarised the debate in this way: Bordiga believed the party would base itself on “foreseeing a future moment when it will be called upon to lead the working class in the final assault for the conquest of power” whereas in Gramsci’s view it should accompany the class in “all the intermediate positions it goes through”.[44]

For Gramsci, revolution had always been a process. Some years earlier, he had written that “the revolution is not a thaumaturgical act, but a dialectical process of historical development”.[45] Now he combined this notion with the strategy and tactics of a supple Leninism, which implied a policy of multiple allies and quickly changing orientations. In 1925 he wrote that “Comrade Lenin has taught us that in order to defeat our class-enemy, who is strong, who has many means and reserves at his disposal, we must exploit every crack in his front and must use every possible ally, even if he is uncertain, vacillating or provisional”.[46] As Gramsci himself notes, this is a direct development of Lenin’s argument in “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder (one of whose targets was Bordiga) where he states that “the more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skillful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisies within the various countries, and also by taking advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional”. Indeed, Lenin had affirmed in this important pamphlet that “the entire history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!”[47]

In the 9 February letter, Gramsci had explained: “I do not doubt that the situation is actively revolutionary and that therefore, in a given period of time, our Party will have the majority on its side; but if this period will perhaps not be long in terms of time, it will undoubtedly be dense in secondary stages [my emphasis], which we shall have to foresee with a certain precision in order to be able to manoeuvre and not fall into errors that would prolong the experiences of the proletariat”.[48]

Alliances, corporatism and the councils

This conception of political temporality as composed of phases is key to understanding Gramsci’s version of Leninism.[49] The idea of stages allows for the understanding that through the political process the party might enter into a series of alliances with separate political forces. Though for Gramsci the alliance between the workers and peasants was a strategic one, the forms that the alliance takes might differ markedly during different phases, as various parties and institutions emerge, develop and disappear – just as the working class might not have one single party or mass institutions, but be split between competing ones (this conception he later formulated as a “war of position”).[50]

Thus in his famous essay “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” Gramsci wrote: “The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances [my emphasis] which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state”. For example, it would do this by making the demands of the peasants “its own from the social point of view; understanding the class demands which they represent; incorporating these demands into its revolutionary transitional program; placing these demands among the objectives for which it struggles”.[51] In order to do this, the proletariat needs “to strip itself of every residue of corporatism, every syndicalist prejudice and incrustation”.[52]

Such a development required a close and concrete analysis of the terrain. Indeed, Gramsci’s writings from 1924-1926 are full of such concrete analyses of the dynamics of various class fractions and the significance of various grouping and parties. In a letter to young communists – importantly called “What is to be Done?” – Gramsci outlined the significance of such concrete reconnaissances. He began by asking the question, “How was the Italian workers’ movement defeated?” The response that the defeat occurred because of the lack of a revolutionary party was inadequate because it presupposed another question: why was there no revolutionary party? The formulaic answer that the cause was the “lack of a revolutionary party” – always true by definition – underestimates the difficulties of actually building such an organisation, which starts on a much more concrete level, one which takes into account the ensemble of social relations. “Why have the Italian proletarian parties always been weak from a revolutionary point of view?… They did not know the situation in which they had to operate, they did not know the terrain on which they should have given battle.”

To pursue the argument further: the problem of leadership was also composed of the problems of the class; one could not be understood without the other. Specifically, the revolutionary parties had not succeeded in disseminating their ideology to the class, and hence the class had no ideology of its own, but rather was caught in the cul-de-sacs not only of reformist but also fascist ideology.[53] This attitude contrasts strikingly with Trotsky’s, as expressed in his later Transitional Program, in which he goes so far as to reduce the problem of workers’ revolution to the problem of leadership.[54]

The influence of Lenin is not hard to detect in Gramsci’s emphasis on a concrete analysis of the terrain in order to construct working class hegemony through a system of alliances. This was a development of the argument the Russian leader mounted against economism in his famous pamphlet, What is to be Done? “To bring political knowledge to the workers,” Lenin had argued two decades earlier, “the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions”.[55] Indeed, working class “consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected… Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats [i.e. are not Marxists – RD]”.[56]

Here, Lenin is asserting the primacy of the political and its independence from directly economic demands posed in unmediated class terms. We need only remember that in 1917 the Bolshevik slogans were “Bread, Peace and Land” and “All Power to the Soviets” – that is, political demands, posed in non-class form (though with a class content, including, in the case of land, “peasant content”). It is this method that allows the party to win over its allies, and for this reason Gramsci was later to describe Lenin’s “greatest contribution” as the concept of hegemony.[57]

For Gramsci, this system of alliances would not be what was later known as a “popular front”, in which the party “chased after” an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie or the labour aristocracy – it was the party’s Right, led by Tasca, who posed this threat, which might desire if not “a bourgeois-proletarian bloc, for the constitutional elimination of fascism, at least to a tactic of real passivity, with no active intervention by our party, thus allowing the bourgeoisie to use the proletariat as electoral cannon-fodder against fascism”.[58] Rather, these alliances would be based on common activity and struggle for immediate demands and eventually lead the “proletariat back to an autonomous position as a revolutionary class; free from all influence of counter-revolutionary classes, groups and parties; capable of collecting around itself and leading all the forces that can be mobilized for the struggle against capitalism”.[59]

Particularly important here were those groups that broke to the left of social democracy, not just the Terzini but also groups like the left of the mostly peasant Popular Party. Again Gramsci and Bordiga clashed on this question. For Bordiga these alliances represented an unnecessary dilution of revolutionary homogeneity but for Gramsci, even if these groups might still represent a minority of the working class and peasantry, they were crucial because they were breaks from the system of bourgeois hegemony and integration as represented by the PSI. To abandon these ruptures was to risk that these groups – the more politically advanced sections of the movement, even if they weren’t necessarily the strategically most important section of the working class – would be channelled back into that bourgeois network.

These alliances might take many forms: demonstrations, election campaigns, joint meetings. Yet one of the most important forms that the worker and peasant bloc would take was the development of workers’ and peasants’ councils.[60] For Gramsci, the revolution was still a mass process carried out by the class and he still believed in the limitless “capacity for initiative and creation of the working masses”.[61] As a result, Leninism “says that the party leads the class through mass organisations, and hence says that one of the key tasks of the party is to develop mass organization; for the far left, by contrast, this problem does not exist”.[62]

In the 9 February letter to his “Centre” grouping, Gramsci explained that the party had been entirely passive and had not tried to “stimulate the masses”:

The party’s error has been to put the emphasis, and abstractly at that, on the question of Party organisation, which then has meant just the creation of an apparatus of functionaries who were orthodox as regards the official conception. It was, and is still, believed that the revolution depends solely on the existence of just such an apparatus, arriving at the point of believing that this existence can bring about the revolution. The party has lacked an organic activity of agitation and propaganda, which is what should have received the whole of our attention and have given rise to the formation of real specialists in this field. We have not attempted, at every single opportunity, to create among the masses the possibility of expressing themselves in the same sense as the Communist Party [all emphases mine – RD].[63]

This argument integrates his earlier work on the factory councils, which would “transform the masses” from workers into producers: “If I did not have a certain fear of hearing cries of Ordine Nuovo-ism, I would say that today one of the most important problems we face, especially in the major capitalist countries [France, Germany, England], is the problem of factory councils and workers’ control – as the basis for a new regroupment of the proletarian class”[64] So these non-party institutions were not to be the result of proletarian regroupment but the terrain on which that redeployment would happen. He incorporated the kind of argument he had made during the “red years” that “the Council is a class, a social institution… Hence the Council realizes in practice the unity of the working class; it gives the masses the same form and cohesion they adopt in the general organization of society… All the problems inherent in the organization of the proletarian State are inherent in the organization of the Council. In the one and the other, the concept of citizen gives way to the concept of comrade”.[65]

Gramsci is interested here in the creation of an intermediate layer of activists, some of whom may be non-party militants. Within the councils, the worker becomes a “producer”:

He has acquired an awareness of his role in the process of production, at all its levels, from the workshop to the nation and the world. At this point he is aware of his class; he becomes a communist, because productivity does not require private property; he becomes a revolutionary, because he sees the capitalist, the private property owner, as a dead hand, an encumbrance on the productive process which must be done away with. At this point he arrives at a conception of the “State”, i.e. he conceives a complex organisation of society, a concrete form of society, because this is nothing but the form of the gigantic apparatus of production which reflects – through all the novel, superior links and relations and functions inherent in its very enormity – the life of the workshop.[66]

In his later work, Gramsci believed an analogous process would happen in all the councils and committees that he was proposing, not only those located in factories, but ones which included the “participation of all the population not grouped in the factories, and with the inclusion of women”.[67] Indeed, here he specifically ruled out the notion – held by some scholars of his later work – that the organisers of the class would be intellectuals. Rather, he insisted that they would workers themselves.[68] He later developed this in his work on “organic intellectuals”, first examined in his essay on the southern question, where the party’s task, as he saw it, was to create a new group of “intellectuals” (again understood as technical specialists or on-the-ground leaders rather than “traditional” intellectuals) who would replace the traditional petty bourgeois leadership of the southern peasants and rural workers. In the Prison Notebooks, he would claim that “the weekly Ordine Nuovo worked to develop forms of new intellectualism and to determine its new concepts”.[69] In other words, the factory council activists were exemplars of just such a new group of “organic intellectuals”.[70]

Part Three: Strategy and Organisation

Party, concept and organisation

Gramsci’s strategic perspectives could only have their effects on the very organisational form and internal norms of the party. This aspect of Gramsci’s Leninism is often overlooked, in part because scholars are rarely involved in the quotidian aspects of organisational activity. In these years Gramsci was, we must remember, primarily a party man, involved in the gritty, day-to-day struggle to forge a functional organisation.

Contrasting himself to Bordiga, Gramsci stated bluntly, “I have another concept of the party, its function, and the relations which should be established between it and the masses outside the party”.[71] Under Bordiga, the party had not been seen as “the result of a dialectical process, in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organising and directing will of the centre converge. It has been seen merely as something suspended in the air; something with its own autonomous and self-generated development; something which the masses will join when the situation is right and the crest of the revolutionary wave is at its highest point”.[72]

For a party to be living and breathing suggests that “historically a party is never definitive and never will be…it will pass through a whole series of transitory phases, and will from time to time absorb new elements in the two forms which are historically possible: through individual recruitment, or through the recruitment of smaller or larger groups”.[73] So if the political situation passes through a series of phases, in which the party itself must “manoeuvre” to build a system of alliances and to integrate and absorb other groupings, then the party itself must pass through a series of phases. Thus for Gramsci, a party could not be judged separately from the class. “Organisational work, the tenacious and difficult struggle to maintain the Party apparatus, are certainly important, but it is not on these things that we can draw up a balance sheet of the Party. It is not enough just to live: we must have a history…”.[74] This different conception was reflected in the debate over whether the party should be considered an “organ” of the class (Bordiga) or a “part” of the class (Gramsci).

Gramsci would later point out that that Bordiga’s line resulted in deep organisational problems in the “intermediate bodies, federations and city branches” and in “a widespread passive mentality of ‘waiting for orders’, namely the ultra-leftist conception that the P[arty] serves only for direct action and, while waiting for the great day, as a mass it has nothing to do but wait”.[75] Elsewhere he pointed out that “passivity has the outward appearance of brisk activity [my emphasis – RD]; because there appears to be a line of development, a seam which workers are meritoriously sweating and toiling away to excavate”.[76]

The truth of these claims could only be ascertained by detailed research into the PCI of the early 1920s, but the theoretical conclusions are clearer. In Gramsci’s view, the explanation for a party’s evolution – both politically and organisationally – must be found in an examination of the complex totality of relations and events.[77]

There were two tasks as Gramsci saw it. The first was to plunge into practical work to build unity and working class activity, to “stimulate the masses” as he had said – because only this could guarantee the health and growth of the party. He later wrote in prison that the way to avoid “bureaucratic centralism” was to ensure a democratic centralism of “movement – i.e. a continual adaption of the organisation to the real movement, a matching of thrusts from below with orders from above”.[78] The blame for bureaucratic centralism lay with “a lack of initiative and responsibility at the bottom, in other words, because of the political immaturity of the peripheral forces”.[79] We can see then that the task of stimulating the masses becomes an essential component of Gramsci’s theory of party organisation: without it, the party cannot guarantee itself against bureaucratic centralism.

But this needed to be combined with a thoroughgoing education campaign in the fundamentals of Marxism, in which Gramsci took particular interest, to be carried out by a party school, a correspondence course, and the printing of new periodicals and pamphlets (he would later connect this task to the idea of “Boshevisation” proposed by the Comintern at its Fifth Congress in 1924).[80]

So where other organisations might accept the second task – to circle the wagons in conditions of reaction – Gramsci felt that the two tasks were complementary. How could “specialists in the field” be created without both processes? Gramsci, even in a period of fascism, insisted that the party must develop in interaction with the class, not stand aside from it. How else would one avoid creating a party of Bordiga-style disembodied functionaries?

The national and the international

Gramsci thus saw himself as elaborating the international political line of the Third International in the concrete situation of Italy, a process that was complex and multifaceted. His problem here was the “reconciliation of national traditions with an international framework” as Cammett puts it.[81] Gramsci became acutely aware of this during his tenure as leader of the PCI. “For all the capitalist countries,” he wrote, “a fundamental problem is posed – the problem of the transition from the united front tactic, understood in a general sense, to a specific tactic which confronts the concrete problems of national life and operates on the basis of the popular forces as they are historically determined”.[82] Indeed, his devastating assessment was that the united front had “in no country found the party or the men capable of concretizing it”.[83]

How much tension lay between these two levels of operation and what forms did that tension take? There can be little doubt that the presence of the Comintern helped both to illuminate and to confuse the strategic debates in Italy. While the Third International did much to generalise the lessons of postwar revolutionary strategy, Comintern meddling in foreign parties – which increasingly occurred throughout the twenties – also resulted in serious deleterious effects. In the case of Italy, Third International representatives had approached Gramsci to “take over” the leadership of the party, something Gramsci refused as an internecine intrigue.[84] Only when he had been convinced that the political line had to change did he step forward to challenge Bordiga.

In the period leading up to Como, Gramsci switched allegiances without making much critique of the International’s processes, so that at the conference he was able to pose the debate in terms of loyalty to the “international party”. Was the national party greater than the international one? He was correct in asserting that if they continued with Bordiga’s policy, they risked expulsion from the International. As he had written to Terracini a few months before Como, “The Comintern cannot sit back peacefully and allow there to be formed in the international field a Party majority which is both in opposition and demanding a rediscussion of all the decisions taken after the Third Congress”.[85]

The limitations of this approach should be clear: no call to institutional authority can ever be a good argument for a position; it amounts to an organisational approach to a political question. On this, Bordiga was formally correct. For his part, Bordiga was prepared to face expulsion rather than abandon his principles.

The notion of loyalty to the Comintern was later used to silence opposition to the growing Stalinisation, a process in which Gramsci played a contradictory role. He certainly showed an “independence of mind in his judgement of all the post-Lenin Bolshevik leaders, bar none”, as Derek Boothman writes,[86] and wrote perhaps the most critical letter to the Russian majority, imploring them to stop destroying their own work. The letter was too radical for Togliatti, who objected, but Gramsci had little time for the protestations and replied to Togliatti that “Your whole argument is tainted by ‘bureaucratism’”.[87] Still, Gramsci was also prepared to lay the blame for the situation in the Russian party primarily on the Left Opposition and later the Joint Opposition (complicating things was Bordiga’s support for Trotsky, and in some cases Gramsci seems to conflate the two).[88] These passages are the most discomforting to read in retrospect, even if Gramsci was one of the earliest International figures to begin to make criticisms of the bureaucratised Comintern leadership (James P. Cannon, for example, did not mount a criticism of Stalinism until 1928). [89]

After his ascension to leadership of the PCI, Gramsci himself came to see the centrality of an independent, self-directed national organisation. He had already recognised a problem with “the way in which the so-called centralism of the Comintern has been understood: up to now, no one has succeeded in developing autonomous, creative parties that are automatically centralized by means of their response to the general plans of action arrived at in the [Comintern Congresses]”.[90] This was a profound perception, contrary to the main lines of thought in the Comintern. The responsibility would have to fall on the Italians themselves, if they were to build such a party. “At any rate, I am more and more convinced that it is we ourselves who have to work, in our country, to build a Party that is strong, politically and organisationally well-equipped and resistant, with such a stock of clear general ideas, well-lodged in the consciousness of each individual, that there will be no possibility of these questions disintegrating with every blow aimed at them …”.[91] Emphasis now had to be placed on the construction of powerful indigenous national parties, each with its own self-developed leaderships.

In this, Gramsci recalled a second speech at Fourth Congress of the International that influenced him greatly – Lenin’s “Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution”. In this speech, Lenin notes that at the Third Congress, “we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their work. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it. … [E]ven if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit”. Lenin’s conclusion was that “the most important thing for all of us, Russian and foreign comrades alike is to sit down and study”.[92] This came as part of a more general rethinking on Lenin’s part in response to the theoretical “crisis” in the Third International, when he was prompted to rethink the organisational consequences of the political rethinking that had emerged from the defeats of the revolutionary wave of 1917-21.[93]

As Francisco Fernandez Buey points out, “After the failure of the revolution in Germany [in 1923], Gramsci had been thinking about how to translate the internationalist tactic of the united front ‘into Italian historical language’. For him, such a translation would mean displacing the process of the formation of communist parties from the international terrain to the national, and, as such, it would then imply a significant change in the understanding of internationalism”.[94] In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci would reaffirm this notion in an important passage, where he argues that “the international situation should be considered in its national aspect… To be sure, the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is ‘national’”.[95]

During his time as leader of the PCI, Gramsci increasingly pursued an independent policy, maintaining his emphasis on the united front even after the Comintern jagged sharply to the left in 1925, and once more became formally closer to Bordiga. Later, in prison, he criticised the Third Period of the Comintern, which echoed Bordiga’s theories almost word for word. This caused him considerable trouble and isolated him from the more “loyal” comrades. He was shaken by the expulsion of three leading PCI comrades for similar opposition. Around the same time, Gramsci seemed to be developing a critique of Stalinism (bureaucratic centralism, “Cadornism” as he termed it) in his prison notes. In this period he tried to get access to Trotsky’s writings, but the prison authorities only allowed him to read My Life, which seems to have reaffirmed him in his critique of Trotsky’s Marxism as overly mechanical. Still, after a conversation in which Gramsci expressed his doubts about the political line and actions of the PCI and the Comintern, his brother decided not to pass on his criticisms to Togliatti for fear that “not even Nino [Antonio] would have been saved from expulsion”.[96]

After the Como conference: Gramsci’s early Leninism crystallised

The Como conference of 1924 was an ambiguous victory for Gramsci. Though he had won over the majority of the central committee, he failed to convince the mid-level leaders. In the consultative vote, his position was defeated by a vote of 39 to four. In Gramsci’s mind, this probably reflected the fact that the secretaries present were exactly the orthodox “functionaries” he had criticised as having been created by Bordiga’s position. Gramsci thus found himself in a complicated position: he was in a majority in the Comintern and on the PCI’s highest leadership bodies, but in a minority among the mid-level leadership. What of the membership proper? Gramsci likely believed that the membership would, once they were made aware of the issues at stake, come over to his side. Tasca certainly believed before the conference that the majority would soon side with Gramsci, while Scoccimarro told Gramsci that he simply had to make open the “latent” support for his line.[97] This is easy enough to believe, for under the conditions of fascism, the bulk of the party membership would likely be sympathetic to a policy of working class unity (and thus the united front). Indeed, some years before they had spontaneously joined the militant anti-fascist groups called the Arditi del Popolo, an activity that Gramsci had encouraged, before Bordiga banned such engagement, a tragic error.

In the following period, Gramsci led the party through the dangerous shoals created by Italian fascism, including the crisis of the regime created by the fascist assassination of the Socialist Deputy Giacomo Matteotti, the walkout of the anti-fascist opposition from the parliament to the “Aventine” that the PCI participated in and Gramsci hoped would become an “anti-parliament”, and the maintenance of the party underground structures and activity. Meanwhile, Gramsci campaigned tirelessly across the country to consolidate his new line and one year later, in a letter to Zinoviev, he declared the battle won.[98] To another comrade in Moscow, he wrote that “there has never been an Exec[utive] that has worked, and that is making comrades work, as much as the present one, one that studies everything, right down to the small problems of the various local organisations, trying to advise comrades, to spur them on with letters and circulars, with visits and inspections, sending capable cadres to the spot… I just observe that the P[arty] in its entirety is more respected and appreciated by everyone, even by its most strenuous opponents; it comes over as a serious force that is developing relentlessly”.[99]

Gramsci’s attitude to leadership was noteworthy for its inclusiveness. In his eyes, the leadership should be composed of all tendencies within the organisation and a collective line would emerge through the discussions between them. In one of his famous letters to Togliatti on the “Russian Question”, Gramsci wrote that the “Leninist line consists in the fight for P[arty] unity, not only for external unity but for that somewhat more intrinsic unity that consists in there not being within the P[arty] two completely divergent lines on all questions”.[100] Indeed, for this reason he believed that Leninism was opposed to factions – hardened groups who began to have greater loyalty to their faction than the party as a whole – and instead operated via “the organic collaboration of all tendencies through participation in the leading bodies”.[101]

There would be no driving of minorities out of the organisation under his leadership, and indeed he castigated Bordiga for refusing to take a leadership position. Yet Gramsci was also was prepared to censor Bordiga’s views within the party, which may have been justified considering the external threat of fascism and the fact that communist parties of that time often went through specific periods when discussion was closed off.[102]

The proof of any political organisation is in its practice rather than in its schemata. Under Bordiga, the party had suffered from a precipitous decline. By the end of 1921 its membership had halved to 24,638 and by the march on Rome in October 1922 it had fallen to 8,709 members (in a country of around 40 million). Some of this was likely due to the difficulties in establishing a new party under conditions of fascism, but the turnaround under Gramsci was dramatic. Quickly, L’Unità more than doubled its circulation to over 50,000 copies. In late 1924, the Terzini finally joined the PCI en masse, bringing with them a significant membership, especially in the rural areas. By December 1924 the party had roughly doubled in size to 17,373 and grew again to 24,837 in 1925. By this time, the party was accumulating the remaining assorted leftists in the remaining bastion of resistance to Mussolini.[103] Gramsci was thus able to point out that “Our party is one of the few, if not the only, party in the International which can claim such a success in a situation as difficult as that which has been being created in all countries”.[104] In these terms, Gramsci’s leadership of the party can only be considered a definitive success.

The PCI’s Lyons conference in 1926 finally crystallised the victory of the Gramsci’s early Leninism. The brilliant “Lyons Theses”, written by Gramsci and Togliatti and adopted by a vast majority of the delegates, codified Gramsci’s position (90.8 percent of the vote in support of the theses, with 9.2 percent for Bordiga).[105] They represented the moment at which Gramsci’s Leninism was finally triumphant. In the words of Paolo Spriano, the Lyons Theses “represent the greatest effort led by the Italian party to apply the beginnings of Leninist tactics and strategy to the situation of a country like [Italy]”.[106] Gramsci believed that the party had resolved the crisis in its development and could call itself a “mass party, not simply because of the influence it exercises on broad strata of the working class and the peasant masses, but because it has acquired…a capacity for analysing situations, for political initiative and for strong leadership which in the past it lacked”.[107] Togliatti agreed: as he looked back on the years of the Como conference, he wrote that the “progress and fate of this movement, if the new leading group had not been formed, and formed at precisely that moment and in that way, through the initiative of Antonio Gramsci and under his immediate direction, would without a shadow of a doubt, have been different, even profoundly different”.[108]

Part Four: A suspended tradition

How might we assess Gramsci’s early Leninism? An emphasis on the subjective as essential to the development of the ensemble of social relations, a complex political strategy based on sensitivity to geopolitical differences and concrete national analysis, an insistence on the primacy of the political in building essential alliances – including through a policy of the united front and the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government – through a series of “secondary phases”, the measurement of the party in relation to the class, the building of a national party as more important than abstract internationalism, a focus on unity both in the working class and the party itself – Gramsci’s particular accents diverge from a current such as Trotskyism, the last surviving Anglophone Leninist tradition, which tended to emphasise international programs at the expense of the concrete and national.[109] Indeed, on first reading, Gramsci’s pre-prison Leninism seem unfamiliar to those brought up outside Italy, for his intellectual touchstones include not only the various Bolshevik leaders, but also his own indigenous tradition of idealism, most obviously that of Croce and Gentile, Labriola and the Frenchman Sorel.

This in turn reminds us that Leninism is not some unitary theory, but rather a complex of interrelated propositions – a practical research program – that individual theorists might emphasise differently. As Francisco Fernandez Buey points out, “Amid the controversy of [the post-Lenin] years, Gramsci’s position cannot be assimilated to that of any other communist political leader of the time, either in the Russian party or in the International. Properly speaking, he was neither a Stalinist, nor a Trotskyist, nor a Bukharinite. He was too secular, too ‘Protestant’ to be any of those things”.[110]

As a research program, Gramsci’s Leninism continued. Indeed, his Prison Notebooks were in many ways a development of the themes outlined in this essay. Gramsci’s carceral project can be understood as an investigation into the failure of the revolutionary movements of the early 1920s.[111] One aspect of this project, then, is a critical assessment of his own early political activity, first of all in the factory council movement in Turin of 1919-1920, and in the Socialist Party and then the Communist Party, and as a development of his early Leninism, influenced in particular by the Fourth Congress of the Third International. As a result, however one sees Gramsci’s later work – as continuity, rupture, aufheben – his earlier work provides one essential key to understanding it.[112]

As a political current, though, Gramsci’s Leninism was suspended by his imprisonment. The rise to power of Togliatti bound the PCI to the fate of the wider communist movement. From then on it struggled in the clutches of Stalinism through notable and yet tempered successes. In any case, Gramsci himself might not have survived this process. Thus an alternative version of Leninism was closed off, leaving that propagated by Trotsky as the sole remaining tradition which maintained fidelity to the first four congresses of the Communist International – those which had such an effect on Gramsci’s thought. The end of Stalinism however allows for a new rediscovery of this fertile form of Leninism, both in its early, pre-prison phase and in the rich and cryptic Notebooks.



Adamson, W.L. 1980, Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory, Echo Point.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2013, “Lenin Versus Leninism”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer.

Buey, Francisco Fernandez 2015, Reading Gramsci, Brill.

Budgen, Sebastian, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Žižek (eds) 2007, Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, Duke University Press.

Cammett, John, 1967, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, Stanford University Press.

Claudin, Fernando 1975, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, Penguin.

Coutinho, Carlos Nelson 2012, Gramsci’s Political Thought, Haymarket.

Davidson, Alastair 1977, Antonio Gramsci: Toward and Intellectual Biography, Merlin Press.

Davidson, Alastair 1982, The Theory and Practice of Italian Communism, Merlin Press.

Del Roio, Marcos 2015, Prisms of Gramsci, Brill.

Fiori, Giuseppe 1990, Antonio Gramsci, Verso.

Gramsci, Antonio 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers.

Gramsci, Antonio 1977, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, International Publishers.

Gramsci, Antonio 1978, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, International Publishers.

Gramsci, Antonio 2014a, A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926, edited and translated by Derek Boothman, Haymarket.

Gramsci, Antonio 2014b, Quaderni del Carcere, Eineudi.

Gramsci Jr., Antonio 2014, La Storia di una Famiglia Rivoluzionaria: Antonio Gramsci e gli Schucht tra la Russia e l’Italia, Editori Riuniti.

Harman, Chris 1977, “Gramsci Versus Eurocommunism”, Part 1, International Socialism (1st series), 98, May.

Lenin, V.I. 1964 (1916), “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm.

Lenin, V.I. 1967, “Speech at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern”, 1922, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1976a, “What is to Be Done?” in Selected Works, Vol. 1, Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1976b, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1977, Speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party, Second Congress of the Third International, 1920, in The Second Congress of the Communist International: Minutes of the Proceedings, New Park.

Lih, Lars 2008, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context, Haymarket.

Lih, Lars 2011, Lenin, Reaktion Books.

Riddell, John (ed.), 2011, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Fourth International, Haymarket Books, Chicago.

Santucci, Antonio A. 2010, Antonio Gramsci, Monthly Review Press.

Serge, Victor 2002, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, University of Iowa Press.

Shandro, Alan 2014, Lenin and the Concept of Hegemony, Brill.

Spriano, Paolo 1976, Storia del Partito Communista Italiano, Vol. 1, Einaudi.

Spriano, Paolo 1979, Antonio Gramsci: The Prison Years, Lawrence and Wishart.

Swartzmantel, John 2015, Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Routledge.

Togliatti, Palmiro 1979, On Gramsci, and Other Writings, Lawrence and Wishart.

Trotsky, Leon 1953, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, Pioneer Publishers.

Trotsky, Leon 1971, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Pathfinder Press.

Trotsky, Leon, Leon Trotsky On France, Monad.

Zinoviev, Gregory 1942 (1916), “The Social Roots of Opportunism”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/zinoviev/works/1916/war/opp3.html.



[1] Amadeo Bordiga and Umberto Terracini, “Theses on the Tactics of the PCI”, in Gramsci 1978, pp95-6.

[2] Paolo Spriano’s two-volume Storia del Partito Communista Italiano (Einaudi, 1976) remains one of essential histories of this period, though it is hampered by its concentration on the central core of the PCI. Spriano was also a “party historian” for the PCI and this means his judgment is at times questionable.

[3] This number according to Terracini’s letter of 13 February, quoted in Spriano 1976, p260. According to Spriano, the objective of the arrests was to hamper any fusion attempt between the PCI and the PSI (p260).

[4] The PSI had been a party divided between revolutionaries and reformists, though unlike many of the other parties of the Second International it had not supported its government in World War One. During the 1920s it passed through a number of splits and realignments. The Terzini had been marginalised after the expulsion of the reformists (who formed the Unitary Socialist Party, PSU) by a faction in the party opposed to fusion and any united front or electoral alliance with the PCI. This new group quickly reinstituted the party’s dominant reformism and later reunited with the PSU.

[5] The Comintern later summarised the election campaign as “a consecration of the efficaciousness of the tactics of the united front”; quoted in Spriano 1976, p341. Around the same time the Central Committee first discussed Gramsci’s line. Spriano calls it one of the most important Central Committee meetings in the PCI’s early years. See Spriano 1976, p247.

[6] See Davidson 1982, p213.

[7] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci’s Intervention at the Como Conference”, pp250-251.

[8] ibid, p251.

[9] See, for example, Davidson 1982, Note 81, p280 (see also p95).

[10] See for example Lars Lih’s discussion of inevitability in Kautsky in Lih 2008, p78.

[11] Gramsci 1978, “Problems of Today and Tomorrow”, p232.

[12] Gramsci 1978, “Against Pessimism”, p213.

[13] Mario Del Roio emphasises the influence of Luxemburg on Gramsci too. His book, Prisms of Gramsci, was published in English as this essay was being finished and to some extent runs parallel to it. See Del Roio 2015, pp12-50.

[14] Quoted in Santucci 2010, p62.

[15] Lenin, for his part, underwent a reassessment of his philosophical lineage after the outbreak of World War One, when he re-read Hegel. See Savas Michael-Matsas, “Lenin and the Path of Dialectics” and Stathis Kouvelakis, “Lenin as a Reader of Hegel: Hypotheses for a Reading of Lenin’s Notebooks on Hegel’s The Science of Logic”, both in Budgen et al. (eds) 2007.

[16] On this, see the analysis of “The Russian Utopia” in Buey, p73.

[17] Davidson 1977, pp158-9. See also “Gramsci’s Theory and Practice”, in Togliatti 1979, pp151-153.

[18] Togliatti 1979, “The Formation of the Leading Group of the Italian Communist Party in 1923-1924”, p261. Spriano makes the same point, see Spriano 1976, p503.

[19] While I’m sympathetic to those like Sandra Bloodworth who find the term “Leninism” unhelpful (Bloodworth 2013), I think this is a useful enough definition, and in any case essentially the one used by Gramsci himself. This definition also runs counter to Lars Lih’s valuable and erudite Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context (Lih 2008). For all Lih’s usefulness, it seems to me that Lenin already had a conception and practice distinct from the Erfurt program before World War One, a conception further developed in his reflections on imperialism and the split in socialism (the development of “bourgeois labour parties”), and finally codified in the resolutions of the Third International. Alan Shandro argues a similar case in Shandro 2014.

[20] See Gramsci Jr. 2014. This information had come from key PCI organiser Camila Ravera. In his book, which contains the letter (p52), Gramsci’s grandson, Antonio Jr., asks, “But why had not [Camila] Ravera described this episode in her memoir published a few years beforehand? Why did it elude all of the Gramsci biographers, including as eminent an author as Giuseppi Fiori? And why doesn’t Gramsci himself ever mention it in any letter and in any article, in spite of all the admiration for Lenin and the strong connections of friendship of the family of Giulia Schucht with that of Ulijanov? [Lenin]? It can’t be excluded that the cause of this strange silence is due to the modesty and correctness of my grandfather towards Amadeo Bordiga. In fact Antonio Gramsci, in spite of the political divergence, always had a great estimation of the true founder of the Communist Party not to talk about their personal friendship.” [My translation – RD].

[21] Fernando Claudin, in his thoughtful book The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform (Claudin, 1975, pp46-102) outlines this theoretical crisis, even if he tends to over-exaggerate it.

[22] Trotsky 1953, pp221-22. Lenin had also made this argument in contracted form in “Left-Wing” Communism an Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works, Lenin 1976b, p320.

[23] Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp199-200. There are two translations in English of this important letter [the other is by Derek Boothman in Gramsci 2014a]. I’ve used both for the purposes of this article.

[24] Zinoviev 1942.

[25] Lenin 1976b, pp320-21.

[26] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation of our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p294.

[27] Gramsci 1978, Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)”, p359.

[28] Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p444.

[29] See, for example, Spriano 1976, pp347-48.

[30] Lenin 1967, speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party, Second Congress of the Third International, 1920, pp183-4. This is a different emphasis to the more dualistic notion of a “bourgeois workers’ party” (or “bourgeois labour party” as found in Lenin’s 1916 piece “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (Lenin 1964), which leaves open the question of whether these organisations are workers’ parties with bourgeois leaderships, or bourgeois parties with working class memberships. Chris Harman’s conflation of Gramsci’s position with the bourgeois-labour party position overlooks the important differences between them. See Harman 1977.

[31] Tasca in Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission Nominated by the Central Committee To Finalize the Lyons Congress Documents”, p326.

[32] Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission…”, p338.

[33] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p408.

[34] ibid., p409.

[35] Walter Adamson divides Gramsci’s typology into a geographic division between East and West and three socio-political categories of Advanced Capitalist, Transitional and Peripheral societies. The result is thus six “types” of society. See Adamson 1980, p89.

[36] Gramsci 1977, “Towards a Renewal of the Socialist Party”, p191.

[37] Gramsci 1977, “The Monkey People”, p374.

[38] Spriano dates this plan and proposal in September 1923 as the first concrete example of a turn in the PCI’s work. See Spriano 1976, pp298-299.

[39] Cammett 1967, p161.

[40] Riddell (ed.) 2011, p1159. For a short summary of the debate, see Riddell’s “Editorial Introduction”, pp20-27.

[41] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci’s Intervention at the Como Conference”, pp253-254.

[42] Quoted in Spriano 1976, p355. (My translation – RD.)

[43] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p391.

[44] Quoted in Gramsci 2014a, “General Introduction” by Derek Boothman, p30.

[45] Gramsci 1977, “Development of the Revolution”, p92.

[46] Quoted in Coutinho 2012, p37.

[47] Lenin 1976b, pp335-336.

[48] Gramsci, “Letter to Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p230. See also Gramsci’s discussion of phases in Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, pp409-410.

[49] Spriano notes its central importance in his history; Spriano 1976, p33-334.

[50] Spriano points out that at least in the time around the Como conference Gramsci, believing the situation was still revolutionary, tended to overestimate the autonomous role the party might play. See Spriano 1976, p345.

[51] Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p443.

[52] ibid., p448.

[53] Gramsci 1978, “What is to be Done?”, pp169-171.

[54] See Fernando Claudin’s compelling and rather Gramscian critique of Trotsky in Claudin 1975, pp79-80.

[55] Lenin 1976a, “What is to Be Done?” in Selected Works, Progress, Moscow, p154.

[56] ibid., p145. As Lars Lih has shown, the basis for this attitude actually can be found in the Erfurt program’s “hegemony” scenario. See Lih 2008, pp96-101.

[57] Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 2, p187; Notebook 4, §38, pp464-65. Gramsci directly echoes this argument in “Elements of the Situation”, in Gramsci 1978, p308.

[58] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation and Our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p303.

[59] Gramsci 1978, “Elements of the Situation”, p308. See also Gramsci’s critique of the German communists Brandler and Thalheimer in the 9 February letter, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others” in Gramsci 2014a, p193.

[60] Some see Gramsci’s emphasis on this as a reflection of his continued Left–Communist approach to the united front, i.e. emphasising the united front “from below”. See Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, “General Introduction” in Gramsci 1971, plxxiii. However, Trotsky was to make a similar argument in his writings on Germany. See Trotsky 1971, pp193-199.

[61] Gramsci 1978, “Once Again on the Organic Capacities of the Working Class”, p419.

[62] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p395.

[63] “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p225.

[64] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p410. A decade later, Trotsky would compose a similar argument in his writings on France. See “For Committees of Action! Not the People’s Front!” in Trotsky 1979, pp129-134.

[65] Gramsci 1977, “Unions and Councils”, p100.

[66] Gramsci 1977, “Syndicalism and the Councils”, p111. Here Marcel Del Roio sees the influence of Sorel, especially in Gramsci’s “spirit of separation from the state and reformism”. See Del Roio 2015, p143. However, Del Roio underestimates the way Lenin too understood the party as a representative of the creative forces of its class, preferring to see Gramsci’s position as closer to “Sorel and also to Luxemburg”, p187. Lars Lih does a good job of dispelling this erroneous dichotomy in Lih 2011.

[67] Gramsci 1978, “Report to the Central Committee: 6 February 1925, p280.

[68] Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission”, p315.

[69] Gramsci 1971, pp9-10 and Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 12, p1550. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci would still associate the development of these organic intellectuals as intimately connected with the development of the party. See for example, Swartzmantel 2015, pp81-89.

[70] Indeed, Gramsci’s interest in the intermediate layers is revealed in his claim that “in every party, and especially in the democratic and social-democratic parties in which the organizational apparatus is very loose, there exist three strata” – of leaders, masses and an intermediate activist layer. Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p401. This prefigures once more a formulation in the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci 1971, p152; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 14, §70, p1733.

[71] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci to Scoccimaro”, p174.

[72] Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp197-198.

[73] ibid., pp198-199.

[74] “To Negri and Palmi”, in Gramsci 2014a, p236.

[75] “To Vincenzo Bianci”, in Gramsci 2014a, p332.

[76] Gramsci 1978, “Against Pessimism”, p213.

[77] Davidson 1977, p159.

[78] Gramsci 1971, p188; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 13, §36, p1634.

[79] Gramsci 1971, p189; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 13, §36, p1634.

[80] See “To the Executive Committee of the Italian Communist Party”, in Gramsci 2014a, pp208-215.

[81] Cammett 1967, p168.

[82] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p410.

[83] Gramsci 1978, “What the Relations should be between the PCI and the Comintern”, p155.

[84] “To Scoccimarro and Togliatti”, in Gramsci 2014a, p244.

[85] “To Terracini”, in Gramsci 2014a, p203.

[86] Gramsci 2014a, “General Introduction” by Derek Boothman, p41.

[87] Gramsci 1978, “Letter to Togliatti”, pp439-440.

[88] For Gramsci’s direct comparison between Trotsky and Bordiga and their attitude to the party see Spriano 1976, p361 and then the chapter “L’equazione bordighismo-trotskismo”, pp429-456.

[89] Victor Serge suggests that Gramsci was more aware of the situation than he could publicly admit and this partly explains his decision to leave Russia. See Serge 2002, pp186-7.

[90] “Quoted in Cammett 1967, p168.

[91] “To Terracini”, in Gramsci 2014a, pp263-264.

[92] Lenin 1967, “Speech at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern”, p676.

[93] See Claudin 1975, pp63-71 and Lih 2011, Chapter 5.

[94] Buey 2015, p88.

[95] Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 14, p187; Notebook 14, §68, p1729 and Gramsci 1971, pp240-1.

[96] See Fiori 1990, pp252-3. Paolo Spriano throws doubt on Gennaro Gramsci’s story, though there seems to be no reason for him to have invented the narrative. As a “party historian”, Spriano tended to minimise Gramsci’s differences with the official line. See Spriano 1979, pp56-60.

[97] Davidson 1982, p142.

[98] “To Zinov’iev”, in Gramsci 2014a, p346.

[99] “To Vincenzo Bianco”, ibid., p332.

[100] “To Togliatti”, ibid., p438.

[101] Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)” in Gramsci 1978, p365.

[102] As Adamson suggests, Gramsci later in his prison notes seems to have conducted a self-critique of the internal functioning of the PCI during his time as leader. Adamson 1980, pp96-97.

[103] Davidson 1982, p150.

[104] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation and Our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p293.

[105] Davidson 1982, p173.

[106] Spriano 1976, p496.

[107] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p385.

[108] Togliatti 1979, “The Formation of the Leading Group of the Italian Communist Party in 1923-24”, p261.

[109] For example, the Fourth International and other Trotskyist currents took a disastrous “turn to industry” en bloc in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

[110] Buey 2015, p87.

[111] Coutinho 2012, p51.

[112] Marcos del Roio also makes a compelling argument for the continuity of Gramsci’s interests between his pre-prison and prison writings. See Del Roio 2015.


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The origins of women’s oppression – a defence of Engels and a new departure-Sandra Bloodworth

Posted by admin On October - 7 - 2018 Comments Off on The origins of women’s oppression – a defence of Engels and a new departure-Sandra Bloodworth

“One of the most absurd notions taken over from eighteenth century enlightenment is that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man.”

– Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.[1][2]

“A fundamental principle of Marxist analysis is that…there are no unseen hands or principles guiding human evolution. It also sees change as produced by forces internal to the social system itself. In other words, causes are not external to and independent of social organization. Inevitable population growth, ecological conditions, or God’s will are not explanations of war, poverty, sexism, or any other social question.”

– Karen Sacks, Sisters and Wives. The past and future of sexual equality.[3]


Frederick Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (hereafter The Origin) was published in 1884. In it he argued that early humans had lived in non-hierarchical societies in which women were not oppressed. The idea that classes might not exist and that men have not always dominated women was widely and systematically denounced as preposterous in the social sciences academy. And the book has remained the subject of debate, especially among feminists, to this day.

There are weaknesses in Engels’ argumentation, not least because he had to rely on the now superseded knowledge of his generation. But also because, in spite of being one of the then most progressive supporters of women’s rights, he accepts many of the stereotypes about women’s sexuality of his time. Nevertheless, there is wide recognition of the importance of this book. Gerda Lerner, a feminist theorist not known for her support of Marxism, says that in spite of self-evident weaknesses,

Engels made a major contribution to our understanding of women’s position in society and history… By locating “the world historic defeat of the female sex” in the period of the formation of archaic states, based on the dominance of propertied elites, he gave the event historicity. Although he was unable to prove any of his propositions, he defined the major theoretical questions for the next hundred years.[4]

Engels basically summarised notes made by Marx and himself on the research of the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. He also incorporated research on the history of the family in ancient societies by Johann Bachofen, a Swiss historian and archaeologist, and relied on his own research about Germanic and Celtic societies. This book was not some isolated, discrete work. It can only fully be understood if taken together with the ideas developed by both Engels and Marx in The German Ideology, the Theses on Feuerbach, The Communist Manifesto and Capital, to name just the best known. Their joint efforts to understand capitalist society and all its degradation and oppression involved, from their earliest writings, grappling with the question of women’s oppression. In On the Jewish Question, written when Marx was 25, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The Holy Family later that year, Marx frequently comments on the enslavement of women and the need for their emancipation.[5] Engels, in his first major work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written from 1844 to early 1845, repeatedly returns to the dangerous and debilitating conditions of women workers. He discusses the effects on women and men of having women working while men are left at home unemployed and makes a point against the moralising of liberal commentators. If this seems unnatural, he says, it must look so because there is “some radical error in the original relationship between men and women. If the rule of the wife over her husband…is unnatural, then the former rule of the husband over the wife must also have been unnatural”.[6]

Also, Engels’ article The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, mostly neglected by the critics of The Origin, laid a solid foundation for understanding human development. Predicated on Darwin’s theory of evolution, but theoretically grounded in his and Marx’s materialist conclusions, he argued that it was the use of hands freed by standing upright which drove human development down the path of tool-making. This then led to a growing intelligence and the development of speech. After a series of controversies and even fraudulent evidence over the next century, the discovery in Africa in 1974 of a three and a half million year-old skeleton with an ape-sized brain but erect posture meant Engels’ proposition was widely accepted, if not always explicitly attributed to him.

The point of this article is to consider whether Engels’ basic proposition – that women’s oppression coincided with the division of society into classes and the rise of the state – stands up. I will not deal with every error or weakness, as many of them are peripheral to this question. And I will not answer every argument made by his critics, as most of them are also not relevant to this point, and I have answered some of them elsewhere.[7]

First, drawing on anthropological and archaeological knowledge assembled over the last half century, I reply to some of the most common arguments which assert that women’ oppression is universal. Then I outline Engels’ basic argument. Thirdly, I outline my argument, which relies heavily on the British Marxist Chris Harman, who interpreted more recent research using Engels’ theoretical method.[8] Finally I will show that the most recent archaeological evidence, while it radically challenges Engels’ historical detail, actually strengthens his central thesis that women’s oppression was established as society divided into classes. However I go beyond both Engels and Harman to explain the origins of women’s oppression in a way that I consider more consistent with Marxism.

Is women’s oppression universal?

Until the 1960s anthropologists almost unanimously agreed that women have always been oppressed. Anthropology, because of its claim to scientific research, was difficult to challenge. And so feminists who took this position were influential. Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed in her famous book The Second Sex, “this has always been a man’s world” and that “the female…is the prey of the species”.[9] Susan Brownmiller’s argument that men have always been violent towards women was very influential among feminists in the 1970s.[10] In opposition to Marxism, she attributed other social divisions such as class and race to men’s domination of women:

Concepts of hierarchy, slavery and private property flowed from, and could only be predicated upon the initial subjugation of woman.

She struck a nerve among feminists happy to accept pop-psychology conjecture in place of historical evidence so long as it painted men as the key enemy:

[O]ne of the earliest forms of male bonding must have been the gang rape of one woman by a band of marauding men. This accomplished, rape became not only a male prerogative, but man’s basic weapon of force against women, the principal agent of his will and her fear… By anatomical fiat – the inescapable construction of their genital organs – the human male was a natural predator.

It was women’s “fear of an open season of rape” which led them to strike the “risky bargain” of “conjugal relationship” and was the “single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man”.[11]

The anthropologist Margaret Mead found “the Arapesh [do not] have any conception of male nature that might make rape understandable to them”. This clearly indicates that rape is a product of particular social systems, not simply men’s physiological attributes. But Brownmiller makes no attempt to explain how this can be understood in view of her own sweeping assertions.[12]

Since then, there has been a wealth of anthropological and archaeological studies which provide overwhelming evidence that women have not always been oppressed and therefore have not always suffered male violence. And yet most non-Marxist writers, and even some who profess to agree with Marx (though not Engels), such as Heather Brown – author of the most recent serious study of Engels’ book and Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks – are still reluctant to accept this basic proposition.[13]

Some feminists studied non-human primates, extrapolating from what they observed to build a picture of human evolution and what the earliest societies might have been like. They concluded there was no evidence that the first hominids, evolving from the apes, would have been male-dominated with females subjected to violence. Brownmiller herself quotes Jane Goodall, who studied wild chimpanzees and found the female did not accept every male who approached her. Even persistent males were not known to rape. Brownmiller even quotes Leonard Williams’ Man and Monkey which concluded that “in monkey society there is no such thing as rape, prostitution, or even passive consent”.[14] However, she claims that because human females are sexually active at any time, unlike other primates, men are capable of rape. The implication is that monkeys and chimps are physically incapable of rape. But the feminist scholar Sally Slocum found that non-human primates “appear not to attempt coitus (when the female is unreceptive), regardless of physiological ability”.[15] A later study, based on similar observations plus archaeological and anthropological studies, concluded “the picture then is one of bipedal, tool-using, food-sharing, and sociable mothers choosing to copulate with males also possessing these traits” at the dawn of humanity.[16]

There are many gaps in our knowledge between these first steps in the evolution of hominids from the apes, probably over two million years ago, and the rise of class societies. Homo sapiens are thought to have emerged from homo erectus about 200,000 years ago and for almost 190,000 years they lived in egalitarian communities with increasingly sophisticated and complex cultures in which there was no oppression.

The starting point from which to assess anthropological evidence about these gatherer-hunter societies is to recognise the bias embedded within the data. Academics and anthropologists who collected this information accompanied colonial invaders and Christian zealots. They were invariably culturally blind and prejudiced against other societies, so their conclusions cannot be read at anything like face value. Overwhelmingly male, they took with them the cultural and social values of capitalist society which distorted their interpretation of what they saw, especially when it came to gender relations. Anthropologists such as Eleanor Burke Leacock, Karen Sacks and others have convincingly demonstrated the male-oriented and prejudiced nature of arguments by influential anthropologists such as Malinowsky and Lévi-Strauss.[17] As I concluded in a study of the diaries of early “explorers” in the west of Australia:

[T]he gender relations in traditional Aboriginal society were understood very much in the terms set by European prejudice and expectations of the time. The ideal of idle women and the juxtaposition of “damned whores and god’s police” were embroidered by and entwined with the brutal racism and sexism which characterised the white settlement.[18]

Western anthropologists and other observers, imposing their view of the world on the societies they studied, assumed the nuclear family of modern capitalism to be a universal feature of human organisation of reproduction and sexuality. Society was thought to be divided into the “public”, male sphere and the “private”, female sphere, a concept clearly associated historically with the rise of capitalism and completely useless in understanding the egalitarian, co-operative and integrated nature of gatherer-hunters’ lives. Because women’s responsibility for childcare in our society contributes to their inferior status and oppression, it was erroneously assumed this could be read into the meaning of their work in all societies.[19] Even many feminist anthropologists “assume low status for maternity, which they see as constraining activities, hindering personality development, and reducing women’s symbolic value. They project the values of our culture onto other cultures”.[20] Judith Brown, writing about the assumed division of labour by sex in gatherer-hunters, writes that women’s “tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt concentration; and the work is not dangerous, can be performed in spite of interruptions (by children)”. This, she assumes, means that women were of low status.[21] I will show below that this view, which was already being challenged, is even less tenable in light of the most recent knowledge.

Secondly, the Eurocentrism of most anthropology obscures the effects of colonial expansion on pre-capitalist societies. As the feminist anthropologist Rayna Reiter noted:

We cannot literally interpret the lives of existing foraging peoples – such as the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari, the Eskimos, the Australian Aborigine – as exhibits and replications of processes we speculate to have occurred in the Palaeolithic. Neither can we assume the decimated, marginalised existences of peoples pushed to the edges of their environment by thousands of years penetration will exhibit original characteristics.[22]

Colonial expansion brought profound changes. These changes could be rapid, affecting research done even at a very early period of invasion. For one thing, members of the society being colonised soon learnt strategies for survival and for minimising attacks on themselves.[23] It is widely believed that Indigenous women in Australia were treated as inferior chattels before white invasion. The arguments rest on reports which reflect the prejudices of early settlers and ignore the catastrophic effects of the white invasion. Most accounts of early contact refer to “the natives” as though the men were the only ones of any consequence; for example, “we saw the natives and their women”. Explorers would have expected to deal with men and viewed women as sex objects, if noticed at all. The Aborigines very early on experienced abduction and rape of women. Henry Reynolds recounts that Torres Strait Islanders told a government official in 1881 that when whites were seen, the women were buried in the sand to avoid ill-treatment.[24] Where this was the case, the male bias of explorers and other observers would have been exaggerated even further. Their impression of gender relations in Aboriginal society would have been of men as the dominant, outgoing sex and women as retiring, submissive and afraid. This then had a dynamic which reinforced the exaggeration of the importance of men. The male explorers gave gifts to men. These gifts of tomahawks, knives, flour, sugar and tobacco may seem trivial taken individually. However, as contact increased and the products of the invaders became more coveted and widespread among Aborigines, these gifts could be expected to change the balance of relationships between women and men. For instance, when land was rendered less accessible or productive because of invasion, Aborigines depended more on food from whites. This undercut the women’s ability to provide for themselves and their children independently of the men.[25]

Leacock documented the pressures exerted on egalitarian social relations by the Jesuits and others committed to hierarchical social relations and women’s oppression, as they colonised the lands of the Montagnais-Naskapi of Canada and the Iroquois Indians of North America.[26] She summarised:

[T]he structure of egalitarian society has been misunderstood as a result of the failure to recognize women’s participation in such society as public and autonomous. To conceptualize hunting/gathering bands as loose collections of nuclear families, in which women are bound by dyadic relations of dependency to individual men, projects onto hunter/gatherers the dimensions of our own social structure. Such a concept implies a teleological and unilinear view of social evolution, whereby our society is seen as the full expression of relations that have been present in all society… Reinterpretations of women’s roles in hunting/gathering societies reveal that qualitatively different relationships obtained.[27]

Some of the most recent and compelling evidence that women have not been universally oppressed exists at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, which was continuously occupied for 1,400 years until 6000 BC. New interpretations of archaeological evidence and advances in science in DNA testing have challenged original conclusions about this fascinating site. The team working with Ian Hodder, the chief archaeologist at the site since 1994, “searched hard” for differences in the diets of women and men as an indicator of social differences. They found “little evidence of radically different lifestyles”. And the fact that all skeletons had carbon residue on their ribs from spending time in smoke-filled houses shows that women were not tied to the home any more than men. He concluded: “[O]verall, there is little evidence that gender was very significant in the allocation of roles… There must have been differences of lifestyle in relation to childbirth, but these differences do not seem to be related to major social distinctions”. Nor did differences in dress or lives mean that “one gender was privileged above the other in terms of the transmission of rules and resources or in terms of social status and lifestyle”.[28]

A considerable body of anthropology shows that in societies such as the !Kung and Mbuti of Africa, women until quite recently participated in decision-making as equals with men, controlled their own sexuality and contributed as equals to productive activity.[29]

In light of this widespread evidence, to which I will add more below, let’s now turn to Engels’ explanation of the origins of women’s oppression.

Engels’ argument

Engels argued that the earliest humans lived in small egalitarian bands, what he called “primitive communism”, or sometimes “savagery” and later “barbarism”, which are offensive to a modern reader, but were in line with archaeological terminology employed at the time. Over thousands of years humans found new, innovative ways to provide the needs of the group until the labour of an individual could produce more than was necessary for their survival. This, he argues, leads to

differences of wealth, the possibility of utilising the labor power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval.

In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up. In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property…[30]

Women’s subordination to men was rooted in this process. He outlines changes in the family from group marriage in which groups of women and men are permitted to have sexual relationships with everyone in the group. In this communistic household, he argues, women are highly valued because they are self-evidently parents of their children whereas paternity is indeterminate.

Engels argues that the domestication of large animals produced the first surplus above what society needed. Given men were thought to be responsible for this as a continuation of their role as the hunters, they were assumed to have control over this surplus product. He outlines a complicated argument about mother right and inheritance through not the family but her gens.[31] By various means, the rules of inheritance were changed so that their newly acquired wealth could be passed down through the men’s gens. He actually quotes Marx’s research into some American Indians who appeared to be in transition, and who were changing the way they named their children: “[T]he custom has grown up of giving the children a gentile name of their father’s gens in order to transfer them into it [instead of their mother’s gens to which they previously belonged], thus enabling them to inherit from him”. Marx said of this: “Man’s innate casuistry! To change things by changing their names! And to find loopholes for violating tradition while maintaining tradition, when direct interest supplied sufficient impulse”. This indicates that inheritance could be changed to account for new social relationships.

Engels says “[t]his revolution [was] one of the most decisive steps ever experienced by humanity”, this “overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex”. And so, if women’s oppression was grounded in the rise of class divisions, then women would only throw off that oppression once they were ended. Engels knew he couldn’t prove how or when these changes occurred, but was confident that there is plenty of evidence that it did happen.[32]

He has been proven absolutely right. Increasingly archaeological evidence and revised assessments of the anthropology of pre-class societies reinforce Engels’ major propositions. The latest evidence shows that for most of the 200,000 years of the history of homo sapiens, they lived in egalitarian societies. It is legitimate to assume there was no oppression. By what means would anyone impose systematic discrimination on any group, and what purpose would it serve in a society which depended on everyone’s contribution? Without a surplus there can be no layer in society not required to contribute to production. And without exploitation, there is no material basis for the oppression of any section of the community. When I was doing research in the late 1980s, the contributors to anthropology journals who argued that women’s oppression is universal instinctively recognised that they would have to defeat the more basic argument that humanity began its social life in non-hierarchical, cooperative societies. As Karen Sacks says, a consistent Marxist, materialist analysis rests on the understanding that “there are no unseen hands or principles guiding human evolution… [C]auses are not external to and independent of social organization”.[33]

The question is, why did the rise of classes lead to the oppression of women? Engels had to work with evidence which existed in his time. So he accepted the dominant but mistaken idea that only men hunted. He also worked with the dominant but wrong thesis among archaeologists that the herding of animals produced the first surplus. So he not unreasonably concluded that men were responsible for and therefore in control of it. In his view, this was the material basis for the changes to the rules of family rights and responsibilities so that previously matrilineal lines of descent and responsibility were replaced by inheritance passed through the male line. For this to be possible, women’s sexuality had to be controlled, so that the paternity of children was clear, unlike in the past when women could have numerous sexual partners.

Engels’ argument in the modern context

So let’s turn to what the latest research indicates and how it affects Engels’ argument. Evidence assembled since the 1960s and now widely accepted as valid debunks virtually every detail of Engels’ argument. However, his central proposition is more soundly confirmed, that is, women’s oppression is not universal but is grounded in the rise of class society. Summing up the widespread consensus which has emerged, Peter Jordan and Vicki Cummings, two of the editors of the 2014 edition of The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers (hereafter The Oxford Handbook) write:

[S]mall-scale hunter-gatherer communities…in all likelihood, remained egalitarian societies lacking pronounced differences in social status, and with little in the way of archaeological evidence for the presence of private wealth or accumulation of prestige objects.[34]

It took tens of thousands of years even after some communities could produce a surplus before a minority, exploiting class backed up by a state emerged. And the process by which these developments took place was very different from how Engels, and even many still today, explain it. Some archaeologists now argue that technological and social features formerly associated with fully settled agricultural societies, such as large sedentary populations, socio-economic inequalities, slavery, craft specialisation, etc., are evident among many communities much earlier than previously thought. These developments took off as early as 40,000 years ago in Europe and spread to many parts of the world over the next 20,000 years. Brian Hayden, a contributor to The Oxford Handbook, argues that “the major watershed in cultural development was not the domestication of plants or animals, but the emergence of the more complex societies that first occurred among hunters and gatherers”.[35]

The evidence is scattered, depending on where archaeological sites are established. However, we see qualitative developments when the last of the ice sheets of the Palaeolithic era melted. As rivers swelled and coastlines rose from melting ice, animal life proliferated along the banks and shorelines. It created new ecosystems with abundant resources such as fish, fertile soil, good rainfall and the like, which encouraged nomadic communities to settle more permanently or at least seasonally. These developments happened first, as far as we know, on the north-east coast of Japan and in the Ukraine, later on the north-west coast of the US, Anatolia, Australia, and along rivers in South-East Asia.

Increasingly across the globe humans who, as far as we know at this time, had travelled vast distances from Africa, were experimenting with burning, tilling the soil, weeding, planting, sowing, irrigating and draining the land. All were gradually contributing to the increased productivity of human labour.[36] These societies maintained their habits of foraging and hunting, but could begin to produce a surplus, if only for difficult times such as drought. But they remained egalitarian and collective communities.

Many of the first “explorers” leading the invasion of Australia or those who established properties on Aboriginal land before their culture was completely destroyed reported that the Indigenous people produced large stores of grain clearly not needed for immediate use. A typical account was described as a “native granary” on the Finke River in the Northern Territory. On a platform built in a tree over three metres from the ground were bags stuffed with grain. Another in the Northern Territory recorded about a ton of grain stored in wooden dishes covered with bark. In central New South Wales another recorded kangaroo skin bags full of grain. The Europeans were unable to explain this behaviour; why would anyone leave stores of nutritious and delicious grain unguarded? To them, only civilised, settled people “farmed”. But Aboriginal communities were semi-sedentary, building houses sometimes where they lived while harvesting or managing a particular area of land. They could leave their stores knowing they would be untouched when they returned from walking across their land, something those from class society simply could not grasp.[37]

Hayden’s conclusions are commensurate with Marx and Engels’ explanation of social change: “[I]t appears that there is an important relationship between resource productivity and surplus production on the one hand and socio-political complexity on the other”.[38]

And so, after at least 150,000 years, this creature which had evolved from early hominids reaching back millions of years – now known to have interbred with Neanderthals who, contrary to early assumptions, had complex social and cultural practices – began to divide between those who produced the needs of society and a minority who lived off the labour of the majority. “The world historical defeat of the female sex”, as Engels put it, was not a single event. Engels would easily embrace the latest conclusions drawn by archaeologists, as they are so clearly comparable with his and Marx’s approach. They understood that society was always in a constant process of change. Small developments in the way production is carried out accumulate and gradually change the way people relate to each other. Engels actually comments that the changes took place over thousands of years, so the long term consequences of changes would not have been evident to any individual. It would take thousands of years before ruling classes and states were established only about 8-10,000 years ago, emphasising that there is nothing natural about exploitation and oppression among humans.

I have been uncomfortable with aspects of Engels’ explanation since I began looking at the evidence in the 1980s. It raises a crucial question which has not been addressed by either his detractors or defenders. If whole families or lineages became a ruling class, what was the role of women in that? The society which was undergoing this development was egalitarian, in which all members, both women and men, participated in important decision-making. So why would women in that social layer just let the men get control? It is not credible that they played no role either in implementing some of the changes or resisting them, possibly both at different times. So I want to outline a different account, not original in all its points, but including one I don’t think anyone has argued before, which acknowledges that women were active participants in the development of the class divisions which led to the systematic oppression of women themselves.

Evolving debates and evidence

First it’s worth summarising some relevant arguments and debates over the last four decades among feminists and Marxists. In the 1970s some feminists began to challenge the accounts which assumed men’s dominance in gatherer-hunter societies. The best of them, some mentioned above, found that women played a constructive, productive role as gatherers which gave them equal standing with men. Karen Sacks was typical. She showed that in some gatherer-hunter societies women adapt the number of pregnancies to the needs of production. She showed that !Kung women in Africa do not take a break from gathering while nursing their infants which, she wrote, “attests to the cultural centrality of women’s productive roles, as well as countering a simple minded reproductive determinism”.[39]

These were very useful studies, as they established that the origins of women’s oppression must be sought in historical, social developments. However, they reinforced the image of man the hunter and woman the gatherer, just reworking it to show that women played a key role in early societies which gave them equal standing with men. More recently the assumption that there was a strict division of labour between women and men has been challenged. Feminist archaeologist Rosemary Joyce comments that some archaeologists began to realise that the assumptions of researchers too often “locked them into viewing the past as a version of the present”, and that it is wrong to assume that gender is “timeless, and more important than any other social distinction”. She also showed that advances in DNA analysis of skeletons revealed that allocations of gender by association with clothing or occupation, as was the usual practice, were erroneous.[40] Two ethno-archaeologists, writing in The Oxford Handbook, also strongly challenge all the old assumptions about a gender division of labour:

Actualistic, field-based studies reveal that the division of labour was highly variable and more flexible than commonly assumed, both within and across populations…[the] division of labour occasionally followed lines of age, ability and experience, among other factors, rather than gender alone.

They comment that “[a] growing ethnographic literature documents the simple but undeniable reality that women also hunt”; and for a wide range of animals of all sizes. “While work areas do sometimes appear to be divided along gender lines, there is also ample evidence for widespread comingling of men’s and women’s activities and work areas, or organisation of work and space along lines other than gender.” They argue that the assignment of tools and implements to women and men in archaeological finds is unreliable because it can just as easily reflect the bias of the researchers (examples of which Joyce documents). But importantly, they argue that an emphasis on the moment of capture and killing is misleading. For one thing, traps, snares and various constructions moderated the dangers and difficulty inherent in hunting: “The full repertoire of procurement technologies and strategies, no doubt, required the complementary labour of women, men, and children”. They argue that insufficient attention is given to what follows the capture: preparing food, clothes, implements, thread, much of which women could do when pregnant or breast-feeding, and conclude:

Carrying the point further, one might note the predominance of women in manufacturing hides and sophisticated tailored skin, gut and fur wardrobes, which allowed hunter-gatherer populations to live and work in cold environments. Facile arguments about women’s “marginalization” and/or men’s “high prestige” tend to wither in the face of such behavioural realities…

A critical issue here is that even though men can have negligible or limited roles in some activities of vital economic concern, these limitations are rarely recognized or used to revise entrenched ideas about the sexual division of labour. On the contrary…the profession has a history of interpreting hunter-gatherer society in terms of women’s marginalization and exclusion.[41]

So to repeat: the evidence does not indicate that men would automatically have got control of any surplus created by domesticating animals; the first surpluses were probably the result of better production of vegetables, fruit, grains and/or fishing, activities which no one disputes women played an active role in. Neither can men’s dominance be explained by the use of the heavy plough as many argue, because class societies and women’s oppression arose in the Americas before its introduction.

Beyond Engels

To explain how women’s oppression became integral to class societies we need to uncover the relationship between objective developments in production and changes this brought about in social relations, including how reproduction was restructured.

Gatherer-hunters and fishers began to settle at least seasonally where they could produce something of a surplus while still largely egalitarian. Control of any surplus was allocated to trusted individuals or groups, perhaps religious figures – any of whom could have been women. They played a necessary social role involving reciprocal responsibilities, coordinating increasingly complex production methods, storing and distributing resources as needed. For thousands of years this did not give those with responsibility for the surplus undue power backed up by coercive powers of a state, even though they may have a high status and access to extra wealth. So how do we explain what changed and why that resulted in men dominating women?

Among nomadic gatherer-hunters it was important that no woman was responsible for more than one infant at a time and so women spaced childbirth around the needs of production. By contrast, in more settled societies, children are potentially extra producers. There is also the need to compensate for a higher death rate, the result of a greater vulnerability to infectious diseases, and the possibility of wars over the resources which are stored. So the higher the birth rate the more successful that society is likely to be.

It is in the interests of the whole society for women not to take part in activities (such as warfare, long distance travel or later heavy agricultural tasks) which expose them to the greatest risks of death, infertility or abortion – or which expose to danger infants dependent on their mother’s milk. So gradually, women’s role changes from being central to production, as well as reproduction, in gatherer-hunter and early horticultural societies. Over time they are excluded from some aspects of production. The anthropologist Ernestine Friedl found evidence that in horticultural societies where men travel long distances for trade and are involved in war, their status increases relative to women. And I want to stress that women were decision-makers in this process. Every step down this path was small and incremental. As Engels emphasised, individuals did not know what the long term, cumulative effects would be.

At Çatalhöyük in Anatolia – a settled, though classless community lasting 1,400 years between 7400 and 6000 BC – as the incentive (or possibly simply the possibility) for women to bear more children than in nomadic society, Ian Hodder notes: “gender roles may have become more demarcated as part of wider changes in society… Men and women may increasingly have become associated with specialist tasks and spheres”.[42]

So with women bearing more children and not as involved in some areas of productive activity, there would be a new emphasis on relations between successive generations of males tied to the land and other means of production. As Harman concludes: “Patrilineality and patrilocality began to fit in with the logic of production much more than matrilineality and matrilocality”. We can now say that those trans-egalitarian gatherer-hunters Hayden writes about, settling in areas of abundance, would experience the beginnings of this process. Importantly, as Harman, but not Engels, notes, not all men got control of any surplus, only those in an emerging ruling group.

For this group to develop the mentality of exploiters, they would have had to come to identify the interests of society as a whole with their control of production. They did not necessarily think of themselves as introducing oppressive relationships. And here I want to diverge from both Engels and Harman, whose accounts are generally accepted by Marxists.

Women in that group could well have agreed that their family lineage, no matter how it was organised, should keep control of the wealth they were in charge of. So just as men in the ruling group could well want to ensure the paternity of their children was clear in order to pass on responsibility for producing and managing the wealth they controlled, so too could women associated with them. It is not convincing to talk of a ruling group emerging in which only men have any say, given that in the society which is being transformed it is generally thought that women and men all contributed to important decisions. Women as well as men had an interest in changing the lines of inheritance. Women’s roles shifted, not because the surplus was created by herding which put men in control, but because with increased numbers of child births, it made sense for lines of inheritance and responsibility for production and management of surpluses to pass through the male line.

Engels’ argument that the imposition of onerous rules could well have provoked resistance is rarely given any serious consideration, and so evidence of this possibility is not taken into account. Indeed the notorious Hammurabi Code of around 1717 BC – drawn up by the Babylonian king of that name and based on even earlier laws in the new class societies of Mesopotamia – prescribed monogamy for women on pain of death, and the rule that women who resisted their subordination “must have her teeth crushed with burnt bricks”. It “tended to exact severer penalties for certain offences, especially for offences against the sacredness of the family”.

The existence of this Code indicates that attempts to oppress women at least sometimes met with resistance which was in turn crushed with ruthless force.[43] Some more class-conscious women could well have participated in imposing such controls over the sexual activity of rebellious members of their circles.

Even though the most dramatic result of this social reorganisation was the oppression of women, it would not have been evident to either the fledgling rulers or those ruled over. As Engels argued, these developments happened over hundreds if not thousands of years, causing a raft of changes, many of which would have unforeseen consequences. There was an upheaval of social, cultural and political life, just as any major change to the productive capacity of society has generated in the thousands of years since. As women hadn’t been oppressed, no one would have anticipated such a devastating outcome.

The argument about the long term evolution of class and state structures can appear to be a seamless, teleological process; too seamless. There is evidence that emerging ruling groups could well have met with resistance. So to maintain their authority to manage the surplus, they would most likely have begun to codify the obligations and rights of members of the community. And as they became more controlling, their position increasingly entrenched by rules and laws, so society’s expectations changed. Gradually any challenge to them would have become a crime against not just them as individuals, but against society.

A number of Neolithic towns in Anatolia which remained egalitarian and dependent on gathering and hunting were occupied by thousands between 10,000 and 7000 BC. However gradually they exhibit signs of hierarchies. Göbekli Tepe, 9600-8000 BC, is thought to be a ceremonial centre, with no houses for living. This suggests the existence of a religious elite whose prestige extended over a wide area.

And there is evidence that developing hierarchies were resisted. The Turkish archaeologist Mehmet Ozdogan, involved in these sites, believes there was a social revolution about 7200 BC which overthrew an elite in Çayönü followed by similar revolutionary upheavals around the surrounding region. In a private email to me in 2011 he wrote:

I am almost sure that there must have been some sort of social turbulence [in that period], not only at Çayönü but in most of the core area of Neolithic Anatolia.

Bernhard Brosius, who studied Anatolia and Balkan Neolithic societies agrees.

On a certain day 9,200 years ago the manorial houses were burnt down… The temple was torn down and burnt, and converted into a municipal waste dump. The slums in the west disappeared for good… The new Çayönü was erected. There were no more houses or shacks built to an inferior standard… All hints to social differences were erased.[44]

He argues that this resulted in a classless society at Çatalhöyük with traditions which lasted for at least 1,000 years.

James C. Scott, in his book Against the Grain, summarises evidence about the history of the early states of Mesopotamia. The most popular explanations by archaeologists of the collapse of many early states are invariably climate change, environmental degradation, population pressures. Scott hints at if not outright rebellions, then escape to surrounding communities not subject to taxation and control by the state, as a factor contributing to that decline. It is usually thought city walls were to keep marauding “barbarians” out, but there are archaeologists who think they were to keep people in.[45]

As ruling groups made efforts to stamp their authority and control over societies in the face of recurring resistance, control over women’s sexuality had to be imposed. This was critical if they were to entrench their position and that of their descendants as the owners of society’s surplus. Women as well as men resisted all these steps in the overthrow of egalitarianism. And so an increasingly repressive cycle ends with woman as “a mere instrument for the production of children”, as Engels thought.[46]

If it is difficult to imagine women participating in the establishment of a ruling group which insisted on control of women’s sexuality, and the accompanying compulsory constraints it entailed such as monogamy and heterosexuality, look no further than known history. Women in ruling groups throughout history have benefited from and enforced the exploitation and oppression of women. Modern day figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Gina Rinehart emphasise the point. To say nothing of Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune, whose wealth of $US43.9 billion is made from an industry which encourages women to obsess about our appearance and then feeds off our anxiety. Alice Walton, heir to the fortune of the retail giant Walmart in the US, accumulated her $US46.6 billion by paying a mostly female workforce miserable wages.

They promote the stereotypes which justify systematic discrimination, even against themselves within their circles, in order to maintain their class’s power and prestige. So women could well have participated in imposing this new regime. While they experience oppression, they also have access to power and wealth by virtue of their class position, which depends on maintaining both the class and gender oppression of those their class exploits.

Also most women today – from all social classes – play a part in imposing, reinforcing or perpetuating women’s oppression to some degree today. It is by and large mothers, for example, who inculcate girls into the norms of a sexist society, and who uphold often most strongly the social values of family, respectability, etc. There is nothing automatic about the oppressed opposing, resisting or even being conscious of the way their oppression manifests.

As Marx and Engels argued, the ideas of society are necessarily the ideas of those who rule. So once ruling circles accepted new attitudes to women, they would quite naturally impose those ideas on the exploited, underpinned by the fact that exploited men could well be producing an increasing percentage of the surplus, while women were being encouraged to bear more children as future labourers to be exploited.


Marx argued in the Theses on Feuerbach that as humans act – producing their necessary food, clothes and shelter – they change themselves. Gradual cumulative changes give rise to new relationships which surround this means of producing, challenging old ideas and social relationships.

Engels’ details were completely askew. He knew next to nothing of gatherer-hunters in earlier societies other than slim reports from Australia. American Indians, studies of whom he read, were already impacted by colonial occupation. He discusses the changes which took place when the German tribes invaded the Roman empire. But it is not directly relevant if we want to know about the earliest societies which made the transition to exploitation, the state and women’s oppression. All it provides us with are hints, from which Engels made deductions, and which did provide some evidence of how family structures could change over time when wider changes occurred.

The fact is when we turn to the latest research, Engels’ arguments, just as his argument about the very development of humanity, are more clearly substantiated today than when he wrote the book. He was right to surmise that the changes involved increasing control over women’s sexuality so that the paternity of children was known. These changes arose from the interaction of the biological needs of reproduction of society and changing social relations of production – but not in the way Engels, and for that matter, how Marxists and feminists still explain it. For control of the surplus by a new ruling class living off the labour of the majority to become the norm, oppression of the majority of both women and men was necessary. The sexuality of women in the ruling elite was subject to new controls in order to ensure the inheritance of property by their class. Over time women’s inequality became entrenched in all classes, giving rise to new oppressive ideas about women’s “nature” and sexuality in particular, but in ways which imposed stereotypes on men as well. The ways in which this oppression has been maintained has varied in different class societies; but maintained it has been, whatever the cultural veneer that surrounds it. The rise of classes, the establishment of a state and women’s oppression was not some smooth, inevitable process; it was fraught with the possibility of resistance and turmoil, as Engels’ broad description of the process makes clear, contrary to those such as Heather Brown who dismiss his account as linear and undialectical:

[W]ithin this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labour power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up.

In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations.[47]

It is incumbent on Marxists and feminists to either defend or debunk Engels on the basis of the latest reliable scientific conclusions.

The clear gender division of labour everyone assumed is no longer a viable assessment of early human communities. So men did not just seize a surplus created by domesticating animals. For one thing, the process by which the earliest surplus was produced predates herding in many places and was the result of a more multi-faceted and complex process than just domesticating large animals. In Çatalhöyük there is no evidence of herding even in a settled township, while there was storage of plant foods, indicating that at least some surplus was produced by other means. And I have referred to other evidence of a surplus even among semi-nomadic communities with no domesticated animals for consumption.

Secondly, it was not just men who got control over the wealth which could be stored for difficult times. Trusted families or lineages, or perhaps religious leaders, any of whom could have been women, were voluntarily given responsibility to manage and distribute the surplus. At first this involved no undue power. However it did lay the basis for the eventual dominance of a minority with wealth and power which they increasingly defended with some kind of state apparatus.

Thirdly, women in that emerging ruling group would have gained power and prestige as well as men. Women were accustomed to participating in collective decision-making. So it’s not credible to ignore the part women would have played in changing rules which governed the community, including the imposition of new controls on the sexuality of women in the increasingly entrenched minority in control of the surplus. Once a ruling class was established, then their ideology of monogamy had to be imposed on the majority, just as the capitalists’ ideology of individualistic competition dominates not just their elite circles but is propagated as the norm for all of society.

The final victory of ruling classes was, as Engels said, the world historic defeat of women, but it was also a drastic defeat for the vast majority of humanity. As Engels comments, from then on, once states were established to defend those ruling groups, every step forward by humanity – such as improved production, the development of science, writing and culture – occurred, and still does, at the expense of the vast majority, the exploited and oppressed.[48] For them, both women and men, liberation will only be possible when the whole class structure has been destroyed.



de Beauvoir, Simone 1987 [1949], The Second Sex, Penguin.

Bloodworth, Sandra n.d., “Gender Relations in Aboriginal Society”, http://sa.org.au/interventions/gender.htm.

Bloodworth, Sandra 1992, “Rape, Sexual Violence and Capitalism”, Socialist Review, 5, Autumn.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2010, “Marx and Engel on women’s oppression and sexuality and their legacy”, Marxist Left Review, 1, Spring.

Brown, Heather 2012, Marx on Gender and the Family. A Critical Study, Brill.

Brown, Judith K. 1970, “A Note on the Division of Labour by Sex”, American Anthropologist, 72.

Brownmiller, Susan 1986, Against Our Will. Men, Women and Rape, Penguin.

Choonara, Joseph and Chris Harman 2009, “Pick of the Quarter”, International Socialism, 123, Summer.

Cummings, Vicki, Peter Jordan and Marek Zvelebil (eds) 2014, The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers, Oxford University Press.

Dahlberg, Frances (ed.) 1981, Woman the Gatherer, Yale University Press.

Engels, Frederick 1972, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, International Publishers.

Engels, Frederick 1977, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Progress Publishers.

Etienne, Mona and Eleanor Burke Leacock 1980, Women and Colonization: Anthropological Perspectives, Praeger.

Gammage, Bill 2012, The Biggest Estate on Earth. How Aborigines made Australia, Allen & Unwin.

Greenberg, David F. 1988, The Construction of Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press.

Harman, Chris 1994, “Engels and the Origins of Human Society”, International Socialism, 65, Winter.

Hodder, Ian 2006, The Leopard’s Tale. Revealing the mysteries of Çatalhöyük, Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2008, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. Sex, Gender, and Archaeology, Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke 1978, “Women’s Status in Egalitarian Societies”, Current Anthropology, 10 (2), June.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke 1981, Myths of Male Dominance, Monthly Review Press.

Lerner, Gerda 1987, The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford University Press.

McGregor, Sheila 2015, “Marx Rediscovered”, International Socialism, 146, Spring.

Moore, Henrietta L. 1991, Feminism and Anthropology, Polity Press.

Reiter, Rayna R. (ed.) 1975, Toward an anthropology of women, Monthly Review Press.

Reiter, Rayna Rapp 1977, “The Search for Origins”, Critique of Anthropology, 3 (9/10).

Reynolds, Henry 1981, The Other Side of the Frontier, James Cook University.

Rohrlich, R. 1980, “The State Formation in Sumer and the Subjugation of Women”, Feminist Studies, Spring.

Sacks, Karen 1982, Sisters and Wives. The past and future of sexual equality, University of Illinois Press.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves and Ruth Gallagher Goodenough (eds) 1990, Beyond the Second Sex. New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender, University of Pennsylvania.

Sayers, Janet, Mary Evans and Nanneke Redclift (eds) 1987, Engels Revisited: new feminist essays, Tavistok Publications.

Scott, James C. 2017, Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale University Press.

Tanner, Nancy and Adrienne Zihlman 1976, “Women in Evolution. Part 1: Innovation and Selection in Human Origins”, Signs, 1 (3), Spring.


Sandra Bloodworth, editor of Marxist Left Review, has written about Lenin and the 1917 Russian revolution, Marxist economics, women’s and sexual oppression and pre-class societies.

[1] This article has been largely shaped by over a decade of discussions about women’s oppression in Socialist Alternative by many comrades, both women and men. Mick Armstrong and Louise O’Shea in particular helped shape the arguments summed up here.

[2] Engels 1972, p113.

[3] Sacks 1982, p104.

[4] Lerner 1987, p23.

[5] All from the Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org.

[6] Engels 1977, p163.

[7] Sayers et al (eds) 1987 for a range of critics who presented papers at a symposium to mark the centenary of the book’s publication and Bloodworth 2010, pp76-79 for my reply to some of them.

[8] Harman 1994.

[9] de Beauvoir 1987 [1949], pp93 and 97.

[10] Brownmiller 1986. For my critique of her book see Bloodworth 1992.

[11] Brownmiller 1986, pp11-18.

[12] Brownmiller 1986, p284.

[13] Brown 2012, pp170-173. See McGregor 2015 for an excellent review of Brown. McGregor disproves virtually all of Brown’s arguments against Engels. She also outlines the weaknesses and errors in Raya Dunayevskaya, on which Brown heavily relies for her argument that Engels did not present Marx’s ideas correctly.

[14] Brownmiller 1986, p13.

[15] Sally Slocum, “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology”, in Reiter 1975, p44.

[16] Tanner and Zihlman 1976.

[17] Leacock 1981, Chapters 11 and 12 for a critique of Lévi-Strauss; Sacks 1982, pp. 1-67; Dahlberg 1981.

[18] Bloodworth n.d.

[19] Moore 1991, pp38-41.

[20] Dahlberg 1981, p21.

[21] Brown 1970, p1074.

[22] Reiter 1977.

[23] Etienne and Leacock 1980 documents the effects of colonial domination in 12 societies, drawing on reports of missionaries, explorers and traders and other historical material.

[24] Reynolds 1981, p145.

[25] Bloodworth n.d.

[26] Leacock 1978; Leacock 1981.

[27] Leacock 1978, p255.

[28] Hodder 2006, p211.

[29] See Sanday and Goodenough (eds) 1984.

[30] Engels 1972, p72.

[31] The used of “gens” changed over time. Engels uses it to mean a group much wider than an immediate “family”, claiming descent from a common ancestor and united by a common name traced through the mothers. Later it was used to refer to the patriarchal groupings of families in ancient Rome.

[32] Engels 1972, pp112-120.

[33] Sacks 1982, p104.

[34] Peter Jordan and Vicki Cummings, “Introduction to Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Innovations”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p590.

[35] Brian Hayden, “Social Complexity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p643.

[36] Jennie Robinson, “The First Hunter-Gatherers”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p600.

[37] Gammage 2012, Chapter 10, “Farms without fences”, pp281-304.

[38] Hayden, “Social Complexity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p646.

[39] Sacks 1982, pp70-71.

[40] Joyce 2008, pp24 and 51; Greenberg 1988 for a discussion of gender/s in early societies, especially Part 1.

[41] Robert Jarvenpa and Hetty Jo Brumbach, “Hunter-Gatherer Gender and Identity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, pp1244-1248.

[42] Hodder 2006, pp210-211 and 218.

[43] Rohrlich 1980.

[44] Bernhard Brosius 2004, “From Çayönü to Çatalhöyük. Emergence and development of an egalitarian society”, cited in Choonara and Harman 2009, p223.

[45] Scott 2017, pp232-234.

[46] Engels 1972, p120.

[47] Engels 1972, pp71-2, emphasis added.

[48] Engels 1972, p226.

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We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


Posted by admin On September - 6 - 2018 Comments Off on Gramsci on Tahrir: EGYPT AND THE DIALECTIC OF PASSIVE AND PERMANENT REVOLUTION-Brecht De Smet


by Brecht De Smet on March 21, 2016

Although it is always difficult, if not impossible, to clearly discern the emergence of a new epoch when you find yourself right in the middle of the process, there are strong indications that we are experiencing a watershed moment in the development of capitalism. Conjunctural crises such as the 2008 financial meltdown reveal the structural instabilities of the neoliberal system of deregulated capital flows, while the tendency toward increased authoritarianism and securitisation in both core and peripheral capitalist countries show the limits of bourgeois democracy to absorb mass discontent. At the same time, episodes such as the ‘Arab Spring’ sharply posit the relevance of ‘old’ categories such as revolution and counter-revolution for the 21st century. As moments of political hope and despair, optimism and pessimism, succeed one another rapidly, activists’ consciousness and understanding of unfolding events often tail-end the almost bipolar ebb and flow of popular initiative. In order to intervene successfully, activists have to make sense of the direction of the process as a whole and of the various instances of agency at work – their own included. Therefore, radical theory has to extend beyond the sphere of mere philosophical, political or economic critique – the unveiling of relations of power – and into the ‘interventionist’ domain of concrete emancipatory strategies and imaginaries.

Arguably Antonio Gramsci is one of the key figures within this revolutionary tradition. His notion of a ‘philosophy of praxis’ challenged the rigid and mechanical framework of the dominant stream of Marxism in the late 1920s, advocating the development of an intellectually sophisticated, but also practice-oriented theory of social change. The last decade has witnessed a renewal of Gramscian theory in the Anglophone world. Key works such as Adam Morton’s Unravelling Gramsci (2007) and Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment (2009) are moving away from leading postwar interpretations that cast the Sardinian Marxist in the restricted role of a ‘reformist’ and of a ‘cultural’ or ‘postcolonial’ thinker, re-appropriating his thought within the context of a new era of global capitalist crisis and struggle. My book Gramsci on Tahrir is a humble contribution to this ongoing debate. I investigate the process of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt and its relation to the broad historical development of capitalism through the combined lens of permanent and passive revolution. Conversely, the Egyptian experience is deployed as a means to think about general changes in state and class power.

Passive revolution is a concept that basically “captures various concrete historical instances in which aspects of the social relations of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of social relations”. In spite of the adjective ‘passive’ this process of ‘revolution-restoration’ does not exclude sudden outbursts of street politics ‘from below’ and even mass uprisings. The concept draws our attention to the political initiative of dominant groups and their capacity to maintain power, through a ‘revolution from above’, in the sense of a gradual, elite-driven transformation of society, and/or by the deflection, fragmentation, and appropriation of popular movements. Faced with the stubborn survival of capitalism in the face of mass revolution and its rebirth in Fordism and Fascism, Gramsci formulated his theory of passive revolution as a “critical corollary” to Marx’s Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). Put simply: what if, indeed, the relations of production began to “fetter” the productive forces and “an era of social revolution” ensued, but the revolutionary proletariat was unable to conquer and transform the bourgeois state? Could this period of non-transition lead to anything else than the apocalyptic choice between “socialism or barbarism”?

Gramsci turned to the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, as a historical case study to ‘work out’ the concept of passive revolution, which, in turn, allowed him to understand the emergence of Fascism. Hence the concept of passive revolution does not function as a discrete political ‘form’, situated somewhere between ‘active’ revolution and counter-revolution, but, as a heuristic that “reveals specific class strategies and spatial practices that characterise capitalist society and how these have changed with the further development of capitalism.” It is, in Gramsci’s own words, a “criterion of interpretation”: a methodological searchlight that reveals the agency, agility, and adaptability of dominant groups that are able to survive their own hegemonic crises. Thus a nation’s history can be comprehended as a series of discrete revolutionary and passive-revolutionary episodes that are incorporated within long-term transformations of global capitalism.

In this regard “Gramsci on Tahrir” functions as a reading of Egypt’s modern history through the lens of its revolutionary upheavals and their displacements: the 1882 Urabi uprising; the 1919 revolution; the 1952 Free Officer coup; the 1977 ‘bread riots’; and the recent mass movements. Here the concept of passive revolution is complemented with Trotsky’s notion of ‘uneven and combined development’, for in the colonial and postcolonial world moments of capitalist constitution and reconstitution become a contemporaneous and protracted process – with important implications for emancipatory struggles. Even after formal independence was declared in 1922 Egypt remained a society in crisis, unable to free itself from its political and economic bondage to imperialism. The interventions of British capital and its alliance with the Egyptian crown and landlords blocked the formation of a capitalist ‘historical bloc’ and a transformation ‘from above’. Conversely, enduring conflicts and cleavages between subaltern groups prevented an alliance that could effectively overthrow state power. The process of permanent-passive revolution became itself deflected through the 1952 Free Officer coup. The military appeared as a neutral, third party that forcefully solved the Egyptian stalemate. However, despite its autonomy, the military did not act in a class vacuum. State power remained rooted in class power, which slowly shifted from the industrial bourgeoisie in the 1950s to the ‘popular classes’ in the 1960s – only to root itself back into parasitic rentier classes from the 1970s onward.

The Egyptian case indicates that the concept of passive revolution offers much more than a heuristic device, for it also probes into the very nature of capitalist class and state power. In his prison notebooks, Gramsci often returns to the case of the French Revolution, which poses the riddle of bourgeois hegemony (and its subsequent demise) – a riddle that Gramsci, in my opinion, never completely solves. In his “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844) Marx mentions how the political revolution of the French bourgeoisie in 1789 created:

…a moment in which this class fraternises and fuses with society in general, becomes identified with it and is experienced and acknowledged as its universal representative; a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the rights and claims of society itself and in which it is in reality the heart and head of society.

Gramsci elaborated upon this idea, adding that:

The previous ruling classes were essentially conservative in the sense that they did not tend to construct an organic passage from the other classes into their own, i.e. to enlarge their class sphere ‘technically’ and ideologically: their conception was that of a closed class. The bourgeois class poses itself as an organism in continuous movement, capable of absorbing the entire society, assimilating it to its own cultural and economic level. The entire function of the State has been transformed; the State has become an ‘educator’.

The French Revolution destroyed the ‘mechanical’ ensemble of feudal society, which consisted of self-contained corporate estates. Whereas feudal dominant classes ruled society almost ‘from the outside’, the bourgeoisie ruled by becoming society and, conversely, by offering the other classes a pathway to become bourgeois.

Although much has been written about ‘the state as educator’ in the above excerpt, the interesting concept of ‘organic passage’ (passaggio organico) itself has not been discussed at length. The importance of the concept cannot be underestimated, because the promise of an ‘organic passage’ of the broad population to the bourgeois class has been capitalism’s mobilising myth, functioning as the origin of the bourgeoisie’s hegemony – and of its systemic crisis. As Marx explains, the universality of the bourgeois project remains abstract, realised by separating a ‘political society’ from ‘civil society’ in which all citizens are equal before the law. Marx distinguishes between this restricted, abstract form of political emancipation and human or social emancipation, which liberates humanity from class society and alienation. At its core, the permanency of revolution in the modern, bourgeois age is the always-present, immanent possibility of social revolution to spring from the conditions of political revolution. Marx quipped in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that: ‘The parliamentary regime leaves everything to the decision of majorities; how shall the great majorities outside parliament not want to decide?’ and, later in the Economic Manuscripts that, ‘[t]he political rule of the producer cannot coexist with the perpetuation of his social slavery’.

The 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune of 1871 confirmed the thesis of permanent revolution in Marx’s eyes. Even if they ended up merely reconfiguring political relations, revolutions – in the sense of mass mobilisations from below contesting existing state power – always contained a ‘social soul’: concrete emancipatory practices that prefigured new social forms in the womb of capitalism. Functioning as passive revolution’s mirror heuristic, the concept of permanent revolution teases out the immanent social soul in a nation’s historical trajectory. In the case of Egypt, Tahrir is revealed as much more than a ‘democratic’ struggle against dictatorship. A desire for social justice and human dignity coincided with practices of popular self-organisation, which embodied the seeds of an alternative society based on equality, diversity, cooperation, and joyful labour. My book shows that these practices have lineages in earlier struggles, reaching back to the early twentieth century.

In its most radical, Jacobin, moment, the French Revolution already showed the fundamental contradiction at the heart of bourgeois hegemony: the promise of an organic passage of the whole of society into the state can never be fulfilled. As Peter Thomas argues, the key term ‘hegemony’ in Gramsci’s writings is not a concept of a neutral political science that describes bourgeois and proletarian leadership in the same terms. The content of bourgeois and proletarian hegemony and its concrete methods of coercion and consent differ fundamentally. Nevertheless, despite this crucial distinction, Gramsci himself is ambiguous about the organic quality of bourgeois leadership at its earliest historical phase, positing a political homology between ‘bourgeois’ Jacobin and ‘proletarian’ Leninist class leadership. Echoing Marx, Gramsci is keen to point out that the progressive role of the bourgeoisie is already exhausted in the revolutions of 1848, as it began to forge alliances with Ancien Régime elites against the emerging proletariat and the spectre of social revolution. However, one could argue that the French Revolution’s  radical Jacobin moment, which created the myth of a bourgeois organic passage was already transgressing the bourgeoisie’s traditional strategy of class rule. Compromise, co-optation, fragmentation of the opposition, and molecular, gradual change engineered ‘from above’  – i.e., passive revolution – appear as the true hallmarks of capitalist state formation. In fact, the English Revolution or German unification are better archetypes of bourgeois state formation than the French Revolution as they show how dominant Ancien Régime groups were gradually transformed into fractions of capital.

Hence the premise of Gramsci’s investigation into the concepts of passive revolution and the ‘integral state’ is that, even though the bourgeois state is not a mechanical state, it is not genuinely organic either. Making a slight detour to Hegel I underline that the bourgeois state in fact supervises a “chemical” ensemble of classes, meaning that there is an apparently neutral relation between the bourgeois class and other social groups on the basis of their shared property as citizens or belonging to ‘the people’. As the late Ellen Meiksins Wood underlined, the history of class society is the history of the differentiation of class and state power, which reaches its pinnacle in bourgeois society. Here state power functions as a ‘middle term’ that mediates class relations, but this representative function is merely a means to the end of achieving bourgeois class power. In other words, it is due to the separation and autonomy of the state that the bourgeoisie is able to rule. Similarly, the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the bourgeoisie emerge mostly in separation of the class itself, within the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie or ‘middle classes’.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from the ‘chemical’ make-up of bourgeois state power. First, the rather common sense and self-evident deduction that bourgeois hegemony is inherently unstable and limited. Second, that political forms that appear historically as aberrations of bourgeois class rule – Bonapartist or Caesarist régimes –are in fact the purest expressions of bourgeois state power. Marx did not conceive of the Bonapartism and empire-crafting of Napoleon III as a regression to a pre-bourgeois phase, but as a development of modern capitalist class power. For the bourgeoisie it was much easier to be a ruling class that appeared to suffer the shared fate of all classes in society – to be subjugated in equal measure by imperial power – than to face the reality of being a class that cowardly refrained from completing its own democratic project. Thus the political dispossession of the bourgeoisie from state power guaranteed its class power. Likewise, Gramsci considered Fascism and parliamentary forms of ‘civil Caesarism’ as modern expressions of bourgeois domination. With this in mind, capitalism’s historical anomaly is not the authoritarianism of the interwar years, but the postwar democratisation of Western Europe’s institutions and the rise of the welfare state. This ‘counter-revolution in democratic form’, a defensive passive revolution sui generis, was rendered possible and necessary in unique circumstances of a powerful labour movement, discredited capitalist parties, a bipolar world order, and an economic boom sustained by a Fordist accumulation strategy.

Similarly, the rise of Nasserism in Egypt and of the ‘developmental state’ in much of the Global South was the unique and contingent result of national and global geopolitical and economic conditions. Decolonisation struggles in the 1950s and 1960s often deflected processes of both permanent and passive revolution, dethroning traditional elites and pushing back the forces of imperialism, but also preventing farmers, workers, and other subaltern groups from taking power. The use of a ‘blocked dialectic’ to describe this process – drawing from Christine Buci-Glucksmann – would be incorrect, as the crisis of imperialist capitalism in core and peripheral countries produced new (capitalist) social forms that did not represent either “socialism or barbarism” and which actually developed the means of production.

The emergence of neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s is a reiteration of prewar imperialism, complete with novel forms of Caesarist state power, which undermine the democratic institutions of bourgeois democracy, for example by relocating political and economic decision-making to supranational entities such as the IMF and the elusive ‘financial markets’. In Europe the recent Greek debt crisis illustrates how capital is able to subdue recalcitrant bourgeois parliaments and a national, sovereign, popular will by international and transnational coercive forces such as the ECB. In Egypt, popular initiative was displaced twice, in 2011 and 2013, by the military apparatus that, in a classical Caesarist way, had to affirm the independence of the state in order to assure the rule of rentier capital. The ‘deep state’ has been coated with a thin layer of democratic legitimacy, which cannot contain the lingering contradictions of the Mubarak era: how can economic development, social justice, and political democracy ever be achieved by a dependent, rentier capitalist class that still operates as a client state for US-imperialism in the region? President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s charismatic leadership of the counter-revolution is already waning in the face of subsidy cuts and increasing police violence. From the perspective of the ruling elites, in order to deflect the dialectic of permanent revolution in a structural manner, Egypt’s political and economic system has to be reformed and important concessions have to be made to the farmers, workers, unemployed youth, street vendors, et cetera, who risked their lives during the uprising. However, the enduring crisis of global capitalism and the arrogance and unwillingness of the dominant groups to engage in a ‘revolution from above’ that offers different goals and recipes than an iteration of the Washington consensus means that in the middle-long term the country is heading to a new bifurcation: either a reassertion of open dictatorship that violently represses the existing political and social movements; or the revival and triumph of the struggle from below.

This analysis has immediate repercussions for an emancipatory politics today. Firstly, it concedes that authoritarian state power is not an expression of an ‘incomplete’ or ‘developing’ capitalism, but the very essence of a mature bourgeois society. Secondly, it understands the specific and local process of counter-revolution in Egypt as part of a general and global process of capitalist crisis and resistance. From these two conclusions we can deduce that any ‘stage theory’ and transitology that demands the construction of a (bourgeois) democratic framework before the implementation of radical social reforms is inherently reactionary. The brief ‘democratic’ episode of the presidency of Muhammad Morsi illustrates the impossibility of ‘democratisation’ without the revolutionary overthrow of the ‘deep state’ and a fundamental change of power relations – not only within Egypt, but also between national and regional and international forces (e.g., USA, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia). At this point Gramscian theory reveals its interventionist character. Permanent revolution and subaltern hegemony offer not only a methodological tool for political science, but also a conscious strategy for social change.

—–Brecht De Smet
Brecht De Smet (MA, PhD) is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University, where he teaches ‘politics of globalisation’ and ‘politics of the contemporary Middle East’. Since 2008 De Smet has conducted fieldwork in Egypt, investigating the relation between political activism and independent trade unionism from a broad Gramscian perspective. De Smet has written on the workers’ movement, the concepts of hegemony and passive revolution, political pedagogy, and social and political protest in Egypt. His recent books are “A Dialectical Pedagogy of Revolt. Gramsci, Vygotsky, and the Egyptian Revolution” (Brill, 2015) and “Gramsci on Tahrir. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt” (Pluto http://ppesydney.net/egypt-and-the-dialectic-of-passive-and-permanent-revolution/

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