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Leon Trotsky – Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution – 1939

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Leon Trotsky – Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution – 1939
By Leon Trotsky
21 October 2008
Written as an appendix to Trotsky’s projected biography of Lenin, and included in his unfinished biography of Stalin, this work contrasts the perspectives of the Russian Revolution advanced by Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky. He outlines the Menshevik position (“The social relations of Russia have ripened only for the bourgeois revolution”); Lenin’s pre-1917 theory of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” (which Lenin discarded when he wrote his April Theses in 1917); and his own theory of permanent revolution, “the original sin of Trotskyism.” He also traces Stalin’s attitude to the debates as they unfolded, and shows how the theory of “socialism in one country” was a bureaucratic reaction against the October Revolution.

* * *

The revolution of 1905 became not only “the dress rehearsal of 1917” but also the laboratory from which emerged all the basic groupings of Russian political thought and where all tendencies and shadings within Russian Marxism took shape or were outlined. The center of the disputes and differences was naturally occupied by the question of the historical character of the Russian revolution and its future paths of development. In and of itself this war of conceptions and prognoses does not relate directly to the biography of Stalin, who took no independent part in it. Those few propaganda articles which he wrote on the subject are without the slightest theoretical interest. Scores of Bolsheviks, with pens in hand, popularized the very same ideas and did it much more ably. A critical exposition of the revolutionary conception of Bolshevism should, in the very nature of things, have entered into a biography of Lenin. However, theories have a fate of their own. If in the period of the first revolution and thereafter up to 1923, when revolutionary doctrines were elaborated and realized, Stalin held no independent position then, from 1924 on, the situation changes abruptly. There opens up the epoch of bureaucratic reaction and of drastic reviews of the past. The film of the revolution is run off in reverse. Old doctrines are submitted to new appraisals or new interpretations. Quite unexpectedly, at first sight, the center of attention is held by the conception of “the permanent revolution” as the fountainhead of all the blunderings of “Trotskyism.” For a number of years thereafter, the criticism of this conception constitutes the main content of the theoretical – sit venio verbo – work of Stalin and his collaborators. It may be said that the whole of Stalinism, taken on the theoretical plane, grew out of the criticism of the theory of the permanent revolution as it was formulated in 1905. To this extent the exposition of this theory, as distinct from the theories of the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, cannot fail to enter into this book, even if in the form of an appendix.

Russia’s Combined Development
The development of Russia is characterized first of all by backwardness. Historical backwardness does not, however, signify a simple reproduction of the development of advanced countries, with merely a delay of one or two centuries. It engenders an entirely new “combined” social formation in which the latest conquests of capitalist technique and structure root themselves into relations of feudal and pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and subjecting them and creating a peculiar interrelationship of classes. The same thing applies in the sphere of ideas. Precisely because of her historical tardiness, Russia turned out to be the only European country where Marxism as a doctrine and the Social Democracy as a party attained powerful development even before the bourgeois revolution. It is only natural that the problem of the correlation between the struggle for democracy and the struggle for socialism was submitted to the most profound theoretical analysis precisely in Russia.
Idealist-democrats, chiefly the Narodniks, refused superstitiously to recognize the impending revolution as bourgeois. They labelled it “democratic” seeking by means of a neutral political formula to mask its social content – not only from others but also from themselves. But in the struggle against Narodnikism, Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, established as long ago as the early eighties of the last century that Russia had no reason whatever to expect a privileged path of development, that like other “profane” nations, she would have to pass through the purgatory of capitalism and that precisely along this path she would acquire political freedom indispensable for the further struggle of the proletariat for socialism. Plekhanov not only separated the bourgeois revolution as a task from the socialist revolution – which he postponed to the indefinite future – but he depicted for each of these entirely different combinations of forces. Political freedom was to be achieved by the proletariat in alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie; after many decades and on a higher level of capitalist development, the proletariat would then carry out the socialist revolution in direct struggle against the bourgeoisie.

“To the Russian intellectual it always seems that to recognize our revolution as bourgeois is to discolor it, degrade it, debase it … For the proletariat the struggle for political freedom and for the democratic republic in bourgeois society is simply a necessary stage in the struggle for the socialist revolution.”

“Marxists are absolutely convinced,” he wrote in 1905, “of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? This means that those democratic transformations which have become indispensable for Russia do not, in and of themselves, signify the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule, but on the contrary they clear the soil, for the first time and in a real way, for a broad and swift, for a European and not an Asiatic development of capitalism. They will make possible for the first time the rule of the bourgeoisie as a class …

“We cannot leap over the bourgeois democratic framework of the Russian revolution,” he insisted, “but we can extend this framework to a colossal degree.”

That is to say, we can create within bourgeois society much more favorable conditions for the future struggle of the proletariat. Within these limits Lenin followed Plekhanov. The bourgeois character of the revolution served both factions of the Russian Social Democracy as their starting point.

It is quite natural that under these conditions, Koba (Stalin) did not go in his propaganda beyond those popular formulas which constitute the common property of Bolsheviks as well as Mensheviks.

“The Constituent Assembly,” he wrote in January 1905, “elected on the basis of equal, direct and secret universal suffrage-this is what we must now fight for! Only this Assembly will give us the democratic republic, so urgently needed by us for our struggle for socialism.”
The bourgeois republic as an arena for a protracted class struggle for the socialist goal such is the perspective.

In 1907, i.e., after innumerable discussions in the press both in Petersburg and abroad and after a serious testing of theoretical prognoses in the experiences of the first revolution, Stalin wrote:

“That our revolution is bourgeois, that it must conclude by destroying the feudal and not the capitalist order, that it can be crowned only by the democratic republic – on this, it seems, all are agreed in our party.”

Stalin spoke not of what the revolution begins with, but of what it ends with, and he limited it in advance and quite categorically to “only the democratic republic.” We would seek in vain in his writings for even a hint of any perspective of a socialist revolution in connection with a democratic overturn. This remained his position even at the beginning of the February revolution in 1917 up to Lenin’s arrival in Petersburg.

The Menshevik View
For Plekhanov, Axelrod and the leaders of Menshevism in general, the sociological characterization of the revolution as bourgeois was valuable politically above all because in advance it prohibited provoking the bourgeoisie by the specter of socialism and “repelling” it into the camp of reaction. “The social relations of Russia have ripened only for the bourgeois revolution,” said the chief tactician of Menshevism, Axelrod, at the Unity Congress. “In the face of the universal deprivation of political rights in our country there cannot even be talk of a direct battle between the proletariat and other classes for political power … The proletariat is fighting for conditions of bourgeois development. The objective historical conditions make it the destiny of our proletariat to inescapably collaborate with the bourgeoisie in the struggle against the common enemy.” The content of the Russian revolution was therewith limited in advance to those transformations which are compatible with the interests and views of the liberal bourgeoisie.

It is precisely at this point that the basic disagreement between the two factions begins. Bolshevism absolutely refused to recognize that the Russian bourgeoisie was capable of leading its own revolution to the end. With infinitely greater power and consistency than Plekhanov, Lenin advanced the agrarian question as the central problem of the democratic overturn in Russia. “The crux of the Russian revolution,” he repeated, “is the agrarian (land) question. Conclusions concerning the defeat or victory of the revolution must be based … on the calculation of the condition of the masses in the struggle for land.” Together with Plekhanov, Lenin viewed the peasantry as a petty-bourgeois class; the peasant land program as a program of bourgeois progress. “Nationalization is a bourgeois measure,” he insisted at the Unity Congress. “It will give an impulse to the development of capitalism; it will sharpen the class struggle, strengthen the mobilization of the land, cause an influx of capital into agriculture, lower the price of grain.” Notwithstanding the indubitable bourgeois character of the agrarian revolution the Russian bourgeoisie remains, however, hostile to the expropriation of landed estates and precisely for this reason strives toward a compromise with the monarchy on the basis of a constitution on the Prussian pattern. To Plekhanov’s idea of an alliance between the proletariat and the liberal bourgeoisie Lenin counterposed the idea of an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. The task of the revolutionary collaboration of these two classes he proclaimed to be the establishment of a “democratic dictatorship,” as the only means of radically cleansing Russia of feudal rubbish, of creating a free farmers’ system and clearing the road for the development of capitalism along American and not Prussian lines.

The victory of the revolution, he wrote, can be crowned “only by a dictatorship because the accomplishment of transformations immediately and urgently needed by the proletariat and the peasantry will evoke the desperate resistance of the landlords, the big bourgeoisie and Czarism. Without the dictatorship it will be impossible to break the resistance, and repel the counter-revolutionary attempts. But this will of course be not a socialist but a democratic dictatorship. It will not be able to touch (without a whole series of transitional stages of revolutionary development) the foundations of capitalism. It will be able, in the best case, to realize a radical redivision of landed property in favor of the peasantry, introduce a consistent and full democratism up to instituting the republic, root out all Asiatic and feudal features not only from the day-to-day life of the village but also of the factory, put a beginning to a serious improvement of workers’ conditions and raise their living standards and, last but not least, carry over the revolutionary conflagration to Europe.”

Vulnerability of Lenin’s Position
Lenin’s conception represented an enormous step forward insofar as it proceeded not from constitutional reforms but from the agrarian overturn as the central task of the revolution and singled out the only realistic combination of social forces for its accomplishment. The weak point of Lenin’s conception, however, was the internally contradictory idea of “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” Lenin himself underscored the fundamental limitation of this “dictatorship” when he openly called it bourgeois. By this he meant to say that for the sake of preserving its alliance with the peasantry the proletariat would in the coming revolution have to forego the direct posing of the socialist tasks. But this would signify the renunciation by the proletariat of its own dictatorship. Consequently, the gist of the matter involved the dictatorship of the peasantry even if with the participation of the workers. On certain occasions Lenin said just this. For example, at the Stockholm Conference, in refuting Plekhanov who came out against the “utopia” of the seizure of power, Lenin said: “What program is under discussion? The agrarian. Who is assumed to seize power under this, program? The revolutionary peasantry. Is Lenin mixing up the power of the proletariat with this peasantry?” No, he says referring to himself: Lenin sharply differentiates the socialist power of the proletariat from the bourgeois democratic power of the peasantry. “But how,” he exclaims again, “is a victorious peasant revolution possible without the seizure of power by the revolutionary peasantry?” In this polemical formula Lenin reveals with special clarity the vulnerability of his position.

The peasantry is dispersed over the surface of an enormous country whose key junctions are the cities. The peasantry itself is incapable of even formulating its own interests inasmuch as in each district these appear differently. The economic link between the provinces is created by the market and the railways but both the market and the railways are in the hands of the cities. In seeking to tear itself away from the restrictions of the village and to generalize its own interests, the peasantry inescapably falls into political dependence upon the city. Finally, the peasantry is heterogeneous in its social relations as well: the kulak stratum naturally seeks to swing it to an alliance with the urban bourgeoisie while the other strata of the village pull to the side of the urban workers. Under these conditions the peasantry as such is completely incapable of conquering power.

True enough, in ancient China, revolutions placed the peasantry in power or, more precisely, placed the military leaders of peasant uprisings in power. This led each time to a redivision of the land and the establishment of a new “peasant” dynasty, whereupon history would begin from the beginning; with a new concentration of usury, and a new uprising. So long as the revolution preserves its purely peasant character society is incapable of emerging from these hopeless and vicious circles. This was the basis of ancient Asiatic history, including ancient Russian history. In Europe beginning with the close of the Middle Ages each victorious peasant uprising placed in power not a peasant government but a left urban party. To put it more precisely, a peasant uprising turned out victorious exactly to the degree to which it succeeded in strengthening the position of the revolutionary section of the urban population. In bourgeois Russia of the twentieth century these could not even be talk of the seizure of power by the revolutionary peasantry.

Attitude Toward Liberalism
The attitude toward the liberal bourgeoisie was, as has been said, the touchstone of the differentiation between revolutionists and opportunists in the ranks of the social democrats. How far could the Russian revolution go? What would be the character of the future revolutionary Provisional Government? What tasks would confront it? And in what order? These questions with all their importance could be correctly posed only on the basis of the fundamental character of the policy of the proletariat, and the character of this policy was in turn determined first of all by the attitude toward the liberal bourgeoisie. Plekhanov obviously and stubbornly shut his eyes to the fundamental conclusion of the political history of the 19th century: Whenever the proletariat comes forward as an independent force the bourgeoisie shifts over to the camp of the counter-revolution. The more audacious the mass struggle all the swifter is the reactionary degeneration of liberalism. No one has yet invented a means for paralyzing the effects of the law of the class struggle.

“We must cherish the support of non-proletarian parties,” repeated Plekhanov during the years of the first revolution, “and not repel them from us by tactless actions.” By monotonous preachments of this sort, the philosopher of Marxism indicated that the living dynamics of society was unattainable to him. “Tactlessness” can repel an individual sensitive intellectual. Classes and parties are attracted or repelled by social interests. “It can be stated with certainty,” replied Lenin to Plekhanov, “that the liberals and landlords will forgive you millions of ‘tactless acts’ but will not forgive you a summons to take away the land.” And not only the landlords. The tops of the bourgeoisie are bound up with the landowners by the unity of property interests, and more narrowly by the system of banks. The tops of the petty bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia are materially and morally dependent upon the big and middle proprietors-they are all afraid of the independent mass movement. Meanwhile, in order to overthrow Czarism, it was necessary to rouse tens upon tens of millions of oppressed to a heroic, self-renouncing, unfettered revolutionary assault that would halt at nothing. The masses can rise to an insurrection only under the banner of their own interests and consequently in the spirit of irreconcilable hostility toward the exploiting classes beginning with the landlords. The “repulsion” of the oppositional bourgeoisie away from the revolutionary workers and peasants was therefore the immanent law of the revolution itself and could not be avoided by means of diplomacy or “tact.”

Each additional month confirmed the Leninist appraisal of liberalism. Contrary to the best hopes of the Mensheviks, the Cadets not only did not prepare to take their place at the head of the “bourgeois” revolution but on the contrary they found their historical mission more and more in the struggle against it.

After the crushing of the December uprising the liberals, who occupied the political limelight thanks to the ephemeral Duma, sought with all their might to justify themselves before the monarchy and explain away their insufficiently active counter-revolutionary conduct in the autumn of 1905 when danger threatened the most sacred props of “culture.” The leader of the liberals, Miliukov, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Winter Palace, quite correctly proved in the press that at the end of 1905 the Cadets could not even show themselves before the masses. “Those who now chide the (Cadet) party,” he wrote, “because it did not protest at the time by arranging meetings against the revolutionary illusions of Trotskyism … simply do not understand or do not remember the moods prevailing at the time among the democratic public gatherings at meetings.” By the “illusions of Trotskyism” the liberal leader understood the independent policy of the proletariat which attracted to the soviets the sympathies of the nethermost layers in the cities, of the soldiers, peasants, and all the oppressed, and which owing to this repelled the “educated society.” The evolution of the Mensheviks unfolded along parallel lines. They had to justify themselves more and more frequently before the liberals, because they had turned out in a bloc with Trotsky after October 1905. The explanations of Martov, the talented publicist of the Mensheviks, came down to this, that it was necessary to make concessions to the “revolutionary illusions” of the masses.

Stalin’s Part in the Dispute
In Tiflis the political groupings took shape on the same principled basis as in Petersburg. “To smash reaction,” wrote the leader of the Caucasian Mensheviks, Zhordanya, “to conquer and carry, through the Constitution – this will depend upon the conscious unification and the striving for a single goal on the part of the forces of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie … It is true that the peasantry will be drawn into the movement, investing it with an elemental character, but the decisive role will nevertheless be played by these two classes while the peasant movement will add grist to their mill.” Lenin mocked at the fears of Zhordanya that an irreconcilable policy toward the bourgeoisie would doom the workers to impotence. Zhordanya “discusses the question of the possible isolation of the proletariat in a democratic overturn and forgets … about the peasantry! Of all the possible allies of the proletariat he knows and is enamoured of the landlord-liberals. And he does not know the peasants. And this in the Caucasus!” The refutations of Lenin while correct in essence simplify the problem on one point. Zhordanya did not “forget” about the peasantry and, as may be gathered from the hint of Lenin himself, could not have possibly forgotten about it in the Caucasus where the peasantry was stormily rising at the time under the banner of the Mensheviks. Zhordanya saw in the peasantry, however, not so much a political ally as a historical battering ram which could and should be utilized by the bourgeoisie in alliance with the proletariat. He did not believe that the peasantry was capable of becoming a leading or even an independent force in the revolution and in this he was not wrong; but he also did not believe that the proletariat was capable of leading the peasant uprising to victory – and in this was his fatal mistake. The Menshevik idea of the alliance of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie actually signified the subjection to the liberals of both the workers and the peasants. The reactionary utopianism of this program was determined by the fact that the far advanced dismemberment of the classes paralyzed the bourgeoisie in advance as a revolutionary factor. In this fundamental question the right was wholly on the side of Bolshevism: the chase after an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie would inescapably counterpose the Social Democracy to the revolutionary movement of workers and peasants. In 1905 the Mensheviks still lacked courage to draw all the necessary conclusions from their theory of the “bourgeois” revolution. In 1917 they drew their ideas to their logical conclusion and broke their heads.

On the question of the attitude to the liberals, Stalin stood during the years of the first revolution on Lenin’s side. It must be stated that during this period even the majority of the rank-and-file Mensheviks were closer to Lenin than to Plekhanov on issues touching the oppositional bourgeoisie. A contemptuous attitude to the liberals was the literary tradition of intellectual radicalism. One would however labor in vain to seek from Koba an independent contribution on this question, an analysis of the Caucasian social relations, new arguments or even a new formulation of old arguments. The leader of the Caucasian Mensheviks, Zhordanya, was far more independent in relation to Plekhanov than Stalin was in relation to Lenin. “In vain the Messrs. Liberals seek,” wrote Koba after January 9, “to save the tottering throne of the Czar. In vain are they extending to the Czar the hand of assistance!

“The aroused popular masses are preparing for the revolution and not for reconciliation with the Czar … Yes, gentlemen, in vain are your efforts. The Russian revolution is inevitable and it is as inevitable as the inevitable rising of the sun! Can you stop the rising sun? That is the question!” And so forth and so on. Higher than this Koba did not rise. Two and a half years later, in repeating Lenin almost literally, he wrote: “The Russian liberal bourgeoisie is anti-revolutionary. It cannot be the motive force, nor, all the less so, the leader of the revolution. It is the sworn enemy of the revolution and a stubborn struggle must be waged against it.” However, it was precisely in this fundamental question that Stalin was to undergo a complete metamorphosis in the next ten years and was to meet the February revolution of 1917 already as a partisan of a bloc with the liberal bourgeoisie and, in accordance with this, as a champion of uniting with the Mensheviks into one party. Only Lenin on arriving from abroad put an abrupt end to the independent policy of Stalin which he called a mockery of Marxism.

On the Role of the Peasantry
The Narodniks saw in the workers and peasants simply “toilers” and “the exploited” who are all equally interested in socialism. Marxists regarded the peasant as a petty bourgeois who is capable of becoming a socialist only to the extent to which he ceases materially or spiritually to be a peasant. With the sentimentalism peculiar to them, the Narodniks perceived in this sociological characterization a moral slur against the peasantry. Along this line occurred for two generations the main struggle between the revolutionary tendencies of Russia. To understand the future disputes between Stalinism and Trotskyism it is necessary once again to emphasize that, in accordance with the entire tradition of Marxism, Lenin never for a moment regarded the peasantry as a socialist ally of the proletariat. On the contrary, the impossibility of the socialist revolution in Russia was deduced by him precisely from the collosal preponderance of the peasantry. This idea runs through all his articles which touch directly or indirectly upon the agrarian question.

“We support the peasant movement,” wrote Lenin in September 1905, “to the extent that it is a revolutionary democratic movement. We are preparing (right now, and immediately) for a struggle with it to the extent that it will come forward as a reactionary, anti-proletarian movement.” The entire gist of Marxism lies in this two-fold task. Lenin saw the socialist ally in the Western proletariat and partly in the semi-proletarian elements in the Russian village but never in the peasantry as such. “From the beginning we support to the very end, by means of all measures, up to confiscation,” he repeated with the insistence peculiar to him, “the peasant in general against the landlord, and later (and not even later but at the very same time) we support the proletariat against the peasant in general.”

“The peasantry will conquer in the bourgeois-democratic revolution,” he wrote in March 1906, “and with this it will completely exhaust its revolutionary spirit as the peasantry. The proletariat will conquer in the bourgeois-democratic revolution and with this it will only unfold in a real way its genuine socialist revolutionary spirit.” “The movement of the peasantry,” he repeated in May of the same year, “is the movement of a different class. This is a struggle not against the foundations of capitalism but for purging all the remnants of feudalism.” This viewpoint can be followed in Lenin from one article to the next, year by year, volume by volume. The language and examples vary, the basic thought remains the same. It could not have been otherwise. Had Lenin seen a socialist ally in the peasantry he would not have had the slightest ground for insisting upon the bourgeois character of the revolution and for limiting “the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” to purely democratic tasks. In those cases where Lenin accused the author of this book of “underestimating” the peasantry he had in mind not at all my non-recognition of the socialist tendencies of the peasantry but, on the contrary, my inadequate – from Lenin’s viewpoint – recognition of the bourgeois-democratic independence of the peasantry, its ability to create its own power and thereby prevent the establishment of the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat.

The reevaluation of values on this question was opened up only in the years of Thermidorian reaction the beginning of which coincided approximately with the illness and death of Lenin. Thenceforth the alliance of Russian workers and peasants was proclaimed to be, in and of itself, a sufficient guarantee against the dangers of restoration and an immutable pledge of the realization of socialism within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. Replacing the theory of international revolution by the theory of socialism in one country Stalin began to designate the Marxist evaluation of the peasantry not otherwise than as “Trotskyism” and, moreover, not only in relation to the present but to the entire past.

It is, of course, possible to raise the question whether or not the classic Marxist view of the peasantry has been proven erroneous. This subject would lead us far beyond the limits of the present review. Suffice it to state here that Marxism has never invested its estimation of the peasantry as a nonsocialist class with an absolute and static character. Marx himself said that the peasant possesses not only superstitions but the ability to reason. In changing conditions the nature of the peasant himself changes. The regime of the dictatorship of the proletariat opened up very broad possibilities for influencing the peasantry and re-educating it. The limits of these possibilities have not yet been exhausted by history.

Nevertheless, it is now already clear that the growing role of the state coercion in the USSR has not refuted but has confirmed fundamentally the attitude toward the peasantry which distinguished Russian Marxists from the Narodniks. However, whatever may be the situation in this respect today after twenty years of the new regime, it remains indubitable that up to the October revolution or more correctly up to 1924 no one in the Marxist Camp – Lenin, least of all – saw in the peasantry a socialist factor of development. Without the aid of the proletarian revolution in the West, Lenin repeated, restoration in Russia was inevitable. He was not mistaken: the Stalinist bureaucracy is nothing else than the first phase of bourgeois restoration.

Trotsky Holds Third Position
We have analyzed above the points of departure of the two basic factions of the Russian Social Democracy. But alongside of them, already at the dawn of the first revolution, was formulated a third position which met with almost no recognition during those years but which we are obliged to set down here with the necessary completeness not only because it found its confirmation in the events of 1917 but especially because seven years after the October revolution, this conception, after being turned topsy-turvy, began to play a completely unforeseen role in the political evolution of Stalin and the whole Soviet bureaucracy.

At the beginning of 1905 a pamphlet by Trotsky was issued in Geneva. This pamphlet analyzed the political situation as it unfolded in the winter of 1904. The author arrived at the conclusion that the independent campaign of petitions and banquets by the liberals had exhausted all its possibilities; that the radical intelligentsia who had pinned their hopes upon the liberals had arrived in a blind alley together with the latter; that the peasant movement was creating favorable conditions for victory but was incapable of assuring it; that a decision could be reached only through the armed uprising of the proletariat; that the next phase on this path would be the general strike. The pamphlet was entitled “Before the Ninth of January,” because it was written before the Bloody Sunday in Petersburg. The mighty strike wave which came after this date together with the initial armed clashes which supplemented this strike wave were an unequivocal confirmation of the strategic prognosis of this pamphlet.

The introduction to my work was written by Parvus, a Russian émigré, who had succeeded by that time in becoming a prominent German writer. Parvus was an exceptional creative personality capable of becoming infected with the ideas of others as well as of enriching others by his ideas. He lacked internal equilibrium and sufficient love for work to give the labor movement the contribution worthy of his talents as thinker and writer. On my personal development he exercised undoubted influence especially in regard to the social revolutionary understanding of our epoch. A few years prior to our first meeting Parvus passionately defended the idea of a general strike in Germany; but the country was then passing through a prolonged industrial boom, the Social Democracy had adapted itself to the regime of the Hohenzollerns; the revolutionary propaganda of a foreigner met with nothing except ironical indifference. On becoming acquainted on the second day after the bloody events in Petersburg with my pamphlet, then in manuscript, Parvus was captured by the idea of the exceptional role which the proletariat of backward Russia was destined to play.

Those few days which we spent together in Munich were filled with conversations which clarified a good deal for both of us and which brought us personally closer together. The introduction which Parvus wrote at the time for the pamphlet has entered firmly into the history of the Russian revolution. In a few pages he illuminated those social peculiarities of belated Russia which were, it is true, known previously but from which no one had drawn all the necessary conclusions.

The political radicalism of Western Europe, wrote Parvus, was, as is well known, based primarily on the petty bourgeoisie. These were the handicraft workers and, in general, that section of the bourgeoisie which had been caught up by the industrial development but was at the same time pushed aside by the capitalist class … In Russia, during the pre-capitalist period, the cities developed more along Chinese than European lines. These were administrative centers, purely functionary in character, without the slightest political significance, while in terms of economic relations they served as trading centers, bazaars, for the surrounding landlord and peasant milieu. Their development was still very insignificant when it was halted by the capitalist process which began to create big cities after its own pattern, i.e., factory cities and centers of world trade … The very same thing that hindered the development of petty-bourgeois democracy served to benefit the class consciousness of the proletariat in Russia, namely, the weak development of the handicraft form of production. The proletariat was immediately concentrated in the factories.
The peasants will be drawn into the movement in ever larger masses. But they are capable only of increasing the political anarchy in the country and, in this way, of weakening the government; they cannot compose a tightly welded revolutionary army. With the development of the revolution, therefore, an ever greater amount of political work will fall to the share of the proletariat. Along with this, its political self-consciousness will broaden, its political energy will grow.

The Social Democracy will be confronted with the dilemma: either to assume the responsibility for the Provisional Government or to stand aside from the workers’ movement. The workers will consider this government as their own regardless of how the Social Democracy conducts itself …. The revolutionary overturn in Russia can be accomplished only by the workers. The revolutionary Provisional Government in Russia will be the government of a workers’ democracy. If the Social Democracy heads the revolutionary movement of the Russian proletariat, then this government will be Social Democratic.

The Social Democratic Provisional Government will not be able to accomplish a socialist overturn in Russia but the very process of liquidating the autocracy and of establishing the democratic republic will provide it with a rich soil for political work.

In the heat of the revolutionary events in the autumn of 1905, I once again met Parvus, this time in Petersburg. While preserving an organizational independence from both factions, we jointly edited a mass workers’ paper, Russkoye Slovo, and, in a coalition with the Mensheviks, a big political newspaper, Nachalo. The theory of the permanent revolution has usually been linked with the names of “Parvus and Trotsky.” This was only partially correct. The period of Parvus’ revolutionary apogee belongs to the end of the last century when he marched at the head of the struggle against the so-called “revisionism,” i.e., the opportunist distortion of Marx’s theory. The failure of the attempts to push the German Social Democracy on the path of more resolute policies undermined his optimism. Toward the perspective of the socialist revolution in the West, Parvus began to react with more and more reservations. He considered at that time that the “Social Democratic Provisional Government will not be able to accomplish a socialist overturn in Russia.” His prognoses indicated, therefore, not the transformation of the democratic revolution into the socialist revolution but only the establishment in Russia of a regime of workers’ democracy of the Australian type, where on the basis of a farmers’ system there arose for the first time a labor government which did not go beyond the framework of a bourgeois regime.

This conclusion was not shared by me. The Australian democracy grew organically from the virgin soil of a new continent and at once assumed a conservative character and subjected to itself a young but quite privileged proletariat. Russian democracy, on the contrary, could arise only as a result of a grandiose revolutionary overturn, the dynamics of which would in no case permit the workers’ government to remain within the framework of bourgeois democracy. Our differences, which began shortly after the revolution of 1905, resulted in a complete break between us at the beginning of the war when Parvus, in whom the skeptic had completely killed the revolutionist, turned out on the side of German imperialism, and later became the counsellor and inspirer of the first president of the German republic, Ebert.

The Theory of Permanent Revolution
Beginning with the pamphlet, Before the Ninth of January, I returned more than once to the development and justification of the theory of the permanent revolution. In view of the importance which this theory later acquired in the ideological evolution of the hero of this biography, it is necessary to present it here in the form of exact quotations from my works in 1905-06:

The core of the population of a modern city, at least in cities of economic-political significance, is constituted by the sharply differentiated class of wage labor. It is precisely this class, essentially unknown during the Great French Revolution, that is destined to play the decisive role in our revolution … In a country economically more backward, the proletariat may come to power sooner than in an advanced capitalist country. The assumption of some sort of automatic dependence of proletarian dictatorship upon the technical forces and resources of a country is a prejudice derived from an extremely oversimplified “economic” materialism. Such a view has nothing in common with Marxism … Notwithstanding that the productive forces of industry in the United States are ten times higher than ours, the political role of the Russian proletariat, its influence upon the polities of the country, and the possibility of its coming influence upon world policies is incomparably higher than the role and significance of the American proletariat.

The Russian revolution, according to our view, will create conditions in which the power may (and with the victory of the revolution must) pass into the hands of the proletariat before the politicians of bourgeois liberalism get a chance to develop their statesmanly genius to the full … The Russian bourgeoisie is surrendering all the revolutionary positions to the proletariat. It will have to surrender likewise the revolutionary leadership of the peasantry. The proletariat in power will appear to the peasantry as an emancipator class … The proletariat basing itself on the peasantry will bring all its forces into play to raise the cultural level of the village and develop a political consciousness in the peasantry … But perhaps the peasantry itself will crowd the proletariat and occupy its place? This is impossible. All the experience of history protests against this assumption. It shows that the peasantry is completely incapable of playing an independent political role … From what has been said it is clear how we regard the idea of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.’ The gist of the matter is not whether we consider it admissible in principle, whether we find this form of political cooperation ‘desirable.’ We consider it unrealizable-at least in the direct and immediate sense.
The foregoing already demonstrates how erroneous is the assertion, later endlessly repeated, that the conception presented here “leaped over the bourgeois revolution.” “The struggle for the democratic renovation of Russia,” I wrote at that time, “has wholly grown out of capitalism and is being conducted by the forces unfolding on the basis of capitalism and is being aimed directly and first of all against the feudal-serf obstacles on the path of the development of capitalist society.” The question, however, was: Just what forces and methods are capable of removing these obstacles?

We may set a bound to all the questions of the revolution by asserting that our revolution is bourgeois in its objective aims, and therefore in its inevitable results, find we may thus shut our eyes to the fact that the chief agent of this bourgeois revolution is the proletariat, and the proletariat will be pushed toward power by the whole course of the revolution … You may lull yourself with the thought that the social conditions of Russia are not yet ripe for a socialist economy – and therewith you may neglect to consider the fact that the proletariat once in power, will inevitably be compelled by the whole logic of its situation to introduce an economy operated by the state … Entering the government not as impotent hostages but as a ruling power, the representatives of the proletariat will by this very act destroy the boundary between minimum and maximum program, i.e., place collectivism on the order of the day. At what point the proletariat will be stopped in this direction will depend on the relationship of forces, but not at all upon the original intentions of the party of the proletariat.

But it is not too early now to pose the question: Must this dictatorship of the proletariat inevitably be shattered against the framework of the bourgeois revolution? Or may it not, upon the given world-historic foundations, open before itself the prospect of victory to be achieved by shattering this limited framework? … One thing can be stated with certainty: Without direct state support from the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and cannot convert its temporary rule into a prolonged socialist dictatorship …”
From this, however, does not at all flow a pessimistic prognosis:

“The political emancipation led by the working class of Russia raises this leader to unprecedented historical heights, transfers into its hands colossal forces and resources and makes it the initiator of the world liquidation of capitalism, for which history has created all the necessary objective prerequisites.”

In regard to the degree to which the international Social Democracy will prove able to fulfill its revolutionary task, I wrote in 1906:
The European socialist parties – above all, the mightiest among them, the German party – have each worked out their own conservatism as an organization embodying the political experience of the proletariat, may become at a certain moment a direct obstacle in the path of the open conflict between the workers and bourgeois reaction …” I concluded my analysis, however, by expressing assurance that. As greater and greater masses rally to socialism and assurance that the “Eastern revolution will imbue the West proletariat with revolutionary idealism and engender in it the desire to speak to its enemy in ‘Russian’ …”

The Three Views Summed Up
Let us sum up. Narodnikism, in the wake of the Slavophiles, proceeded from illusions concerning the absolutely original paths of Russia’s development, and waved aside capitalism and the bourgeois republic. Plekhanov’s Marxism was concentrated on proving the principled identity of the historical paths of Russia and of the West. The program derived from this ignored the wholly real and not at all mystical peculiarities of Russia’s social structure and of her revolutionary development. The Menshevik attitude toward the revolution, stripped of episodic encrustations and individual deviations, is reducible to the following: The victory of the Russian bourgeois revolution is conceivable only under the leadership of the liberal bourgeoisie and must hand over power to the latter. The democratic regime will then permit the Russian proletariat to catch up with its older Western brothers on the road of the struggle for socialism with incomparably greater success than hitherto.

Lenin’s perspective may be briefly expressed as follows: The belated Russian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading its own revolution to the end. The complete victory of the revolution through the medium of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” will purge the country of medievalism, invest the development of Russian capitalism with American tempos, strengthen the proletariat in the city and country, and open up broad possibilities for the struggle for socialism. On the other hand, the victory of the Russian revolution will provide a mighty impulse for the socialist revolution in the West, and the latter will not only shield Russia from the dangers of restoration but also permit the Russian proletariat to reach the conquest of power in a comparatively short historical interval.

The perspective of the permanent revolution may be summed up in these words: The complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is inconceivable otherwise than in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat basing itself on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which will inescapably place on the order of the day not only democratic but also socialist tasks, will at the same time provide a mighty impulse to the international socialist revolution. Only, the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.

These terse formulations reveal with equal clarity both the homogeneity of the last two conceptions in their irreconcilable contradiction with the liberal-Menshevist perspective as well as their extremely essential difference from one another on the question of the social character and the tasks of the “dictatorship” which was to grow out of the revolution. The frequently repeated objection of the present Moscow theoreticians to the effect that the program of the dictatorship of the proletariat was “premature” in 1905 is entirely lacking in content. In the empirical sense the program of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry proved to be equally “premature.” The unfavorable relation of forces in the epoch of the first revolution rendered impossible not the dictatorship of the proletariat as such but, in general, the victory of the revolution itself. Meanwhile all the revolutionary tendencies proceeded from the hopes for a complete victory; without such a hope an unfettered revolutionary struggle would be impossible. The differences involved the general perspectives of the revolution and the strategy flowing therefrom. The perspective of Menshevism was false to the core: it pointed out an entirely different road for the proletariat. The perspective of Bolshevism was not complete; it indicated correctly the general direction of the struggle but characterized its stages incorrectly. The inadequacy of the perspective of Bolshevism was not revealed in 1905 only because the revolution itself did not receive further development. But at the beginning of 1917 Lenin was compelled, in a direct struggle against the oldest cadres of the party, to change the perspective.

A political prognosis cannot pretend to the same exactness as an astronomical one. It suffices if it gives a correct indication of the general line of development and helps to orient oneself in the actual course of events in which the basic line is inevitably shifted either to the right or to the left. In this sense it is impossible not to recognize that the conception of the permanent revolution has fully passed the test of history. In the first years of the Soviet regime, this was denied by none; on the contrary, this fact met with recognition in a number of official publications. But when on the quiescent and ossified summits of Soviet society the bureaucratic reaction against October opened up, it was from the very beginning directed against this theory which more completely than any other reflected the first proletarian revolution in history and at the same time clearly revealed its incomplete, limited and partial character. Thus, by way of repulsion, originated the theory of socialism in one country, the basic dogma of Stalinism.

Summer, 1939.


What shapes history: the individual or objective conditions? — II — Dr Saulat Nagi

Posted by admin On May - 16 - 2013 Comments Off on What shapes history: the individual or objective conditions? — II — Dr Saulat Nagi


The further deterioration of the economy has now compelled the middle class, which previously supported the comprador bourgeoisie, to succumb to political fascism

It was the consciousness of the proletariat that completely changed the idea of Lenin, one from a bourgeois revolution to a proletarian takeover. This exposed the impotence and ineptness of the bourgeoisie, which in Russia had already lost its historical role of leading the revolution. Lenin’s April Theses were a recognition of the development of the consciousness of the productive forces that instead of being enlightened by him ended up emancipating the vanguard. Lenin scented this marvellous change and went on to accomplish the proletarian revolution. This was how one could say he made history. However, if the case had been otherwise, i.e. the productive forces had been poorly developed, then no amount of talent possessed by Lenin or his party could have eliminated the economic relations that conformed to the then existing developmental state of these forces. Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, correctly asserted that “every man of talent who becomes a social force, is the product of social relations. Since this is the case, it is clear why talented people can…change only individual features of events, but not their general trend; they are themselves the product of this trend; were it not for that trend they never would have crossed the threshold that divides the potential from the real.”

French historian Gabriel Monod while expressing his opinion on the historic role played by the individual states: “Historians are too much in the habit of paying attention only to the brilliant, clamorous and ephemeral manifestations of human activity, to great events and great men, instead of depicting the great and slow changes of economic conditions and social institutions, which constitute the really interesting and intransient part of human development — the part which, to a certain extent, may be reduced to laws and subjected, to a certain extent, to exact analysis. Indeed, important events and individuals are important precisely as signs and symbols of different moments of the aforesaid development. But most of the events that are called historical have the same relation to real history as the waves which rise up from the surface of the sea, gleam in the light for a moment and break on the sandy shore, leaving no trace behind them, have to the deep and constant motion of the tides.”

Like religion, capitalism endows the individual with the powers of a superman. Like a Hollywood superstar, he is a perfect human being capable of performing wonders. Indeed, it’s a convenient position to be in. To conceal the anti-people system loaded with malice, an individual can be blamed for all the maladies afflicting the masses and can be sacrificed on the altar of hypocrisy/expediency. But this whole idea is sheer absurd! Harrison Fluss exposes its grotesqueness in these words: “We don’t want to have a ‘bad man’ theory of history, where it’s just a few people pulling the strings behind the scenes that are responsible for the corruption. Usually, the people who hold the reins are themselves personifications of specific social arrangements (what Marx refers to as ‘character masks’ in Das Kapital), of a socio-economic character. So, you have to look at the social conditions which engender certain forms of corruption, instead of deducing the logic of history from Lord Acton’s very narrow and mystifying maxim.”

Capitalism through its massive propaganda based on lies has so much influenced ideas that every distortion looks amazingly real. As Max Horkheimer states, this conditioning or “the new order contradicts reason so fundamentally that reason does not dare to doubt it. Even the consciousness of oppression fades. The more incommensurate become the concentration of power and the helplessness of the individual, the more difficult for him to penetrate the human origin of his misery. The dimensions of this process are so superhuman that even the imagination which has withstood the mutilation of mass culture hesitates to derive this state of affairs from its social origin.” Hence, an alternate interpretation of reality as prescribed by Gramsci becomes imperative to counter the surreal vulgarity stuffed in minds as ‘ideas’ by the bourgeoisie. To emancipate the people, “the denunciation of what is currently called reason” will be “the greatest service reason can render” (Max Horkheimer). Mark Twain precisely describes the dilemma when he states, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” “Truth is beautiful without any doubt,” states Emerson, and “so are the lies,” he concludes. Perhaps all the more when they are spoken frequently and brazenly by sensual charming lips with an aura of religious fervour. Hence, men and women become mere appendages of machines.

Capital with its iron-fisted control of the media has turned one of its minions into a leader who according to its poodle press had the sagacity and the will to change the world single-handedly. A huge state funeral had been staged for the burial of Margaret Thatcher, a lady who was a product of those times when capitalism was in crisis. Capitalism was seeking absolute power with no-holds-barred. To initiate the process of so-called ‘globalisation’, finance capital needed every control abolished. She readily became an instrument of the elimination of this scourge. State terrorism was unleashed on the unions, national assets were privatised, many of the social gains achieved by the working class were overturned and war was waged on the Falklands (an opportunity provided by General Leopoldo Galtieri, the illegitimate ruler of Argentina, the country that was itself going through its worst economic crisis). It was a war that was described by one critic as “two bald people fighting for a comb”. In fact, as stated by many, it was aimed at boosting her dwindling influence on power. Her rule continued to be more draconian when 10 Sinn Fein members (including a member of parliament) were allegedly starved to death in British custody. Finally, in 1990, she was dumped by her own party because her policies had created unemployment on a mass scale and violent class conflict was beginning to threaten the system. In the US, capitalism showered its benevolence with the same fanfare upon her contemporary, Ronald Reagan. For the working class of the US, it’s a name synonymous with mayhem. Courtesy of the state, these servile pygmies have been bestowed with honour that they barely deserved. This happens to be the biggest coercion carried out in history. Not a mere manipulation, but a brutal molestation! In the international arena, time and again, the capitalist-backed media has proved its might when it comes to masquerading the truth. This is why Malcolm X stated, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” While revealing the reality of US presidential elections, he stated, “The only thing that made Lyndon B Johnson acceptable…was that the shrewd capitalists, the shrewd imperialists, knew that the only way people would run towards a fox would be if you showed them a wolf. So they created a ghastly alternative.”

What media can do elsewhere, the Pakistani establishment is capable of emulating back home since it controls the means of production. Here, icons are created overnight, alliances are made having odd bedfellows who have nothing in common other than their lust for power and wealth. Political parties from thin air are floated and fostered with nonchalant ease. The legacy of army generals who are the guardians of the existing feudal-cum-bourgeois system has left a deep scar on the polity of Pakistan. The many Muslim Leagues are the residue of these self-proclaimed defenders of the ideological and geographical frontiers of this unfortunate land of the pure, who have ransacked this nation more than any other individual or institution. The inferno of religious fascism that is blazing the nation is a priceless gift handed down by them. The further deterioration of the economy has now compelled the middle class, which previously supported the comprador bourgeoisie, to succumb to political fascism that under the existing objective conditions can frighteningly become a cross-class phenomenon. A Caesar has been reincarnated since, at this historical point, the social classes find themselves completely alienated from their traditional parties. As Gramsci states, “The conflict between ‘represented’ and ‘representatives’ reverberates out from the terrain of the [traditional] parties…A crisis of authority is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the state.” To ensure the status quo, a charismatic man of destiny has been put forth. In this way, the traditional ruling class “may make sacrifices and expose itself to an uncertain future by demagogic promises but it retains power.” Hence, nothing will change. The cadavers will be replaced by young zealots without altering the property relations. The suffering will persist, the misery will continue to loom, and the people will continue to live in the basement of society, although the possibility of resuscitation of big capital cannot be ruled out.


The writer is based in Australia and has authored books on socialism and history. He can be reached at saulatnagi@hotmail.com

Poulantzas and Gramsci: State and Strategy-Chris Walsh

Posted by admin On May - 15 - 2013 Comments Off on Poulantzas and Gramsci: State and Strategy-Chris Walsh


Nicos Poulantzas’s final major work State, Power, Socialism (SPS) draws on and concludes his expansive researches into the capitalist State in an attempt to offer strategic guidance out of Western Marxism’s crisis of the late 1970s. By this point, Poulantzas had abandoned the Leninism of his earlier career and was a proponent of a Left Eurocommunism. In SPS he offers his own conception of a ‘democratic road to socialism’, which dispenses with such problematic concepts as ‘dual power’ and ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. Although clearly indebted to Gramsci, Poulantzas uses this text to critique his conception of power, aspects of his understanding of the State, his strategy and, fundamentally, his fidelity to the Leninist tradition. This article will interrogate Poulantzas’s critique of Gramsci; assess the usefulness of the ‘democratic road to socialism’; and attempt to outline which aspects (if any) of the mature Poulantzas’s theory are congruent with a Leninist and Gramscian strategy for socialists today.

Leaving Lenin Behind

The first point to raise about Poulantzas’s critique of Gramsci in SPS is that more often than not, he is setting up a straw-man to tear down. Although he correctly identifies Gramsci as a Leninist, he routinely attributes positions of Lenin’s, made in very specific circumstances, to Gramsci more generally.(For an investigation into the theoretical relationship between Lenin and Gramsci see ‘Gramsci’s Leninism’) Poulantzas writes of Lenin:

“The capitalist State is still considered as a mere object or instrument, capable of being manipulated by the bourgeoisie of which it is an emanation. According to this view of things, the State is not traversed by internal contradictions, but is a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind. The struggles of the popular masses cannot pass through the state, any more than they can become, in opposition to the bourgeoisie, one of the constituent factors of the institutions of representative democracy. Class contradictions are located between the State and the popular masses standing outside the State.”1

In the first installment of this series, we outlined Poulantzas’s critique of the ‘instrument state’, as outlined by Lenin, instead defining the State as a ‘material condensation of a relationship of forces’. Here, he also challenges the notion of ‘civil society’ constituting a distinct terrain from the State; and the fact that Lenin’s conception sees the State neither as a site of strategy or an arena of class struggle. For Lenin, the State could not be challenged through an internal struggle for and within its apparatuses: it was a state that maintained class order through force alone; it’s monopoly of legitimate violence, its ‘special bodies of armed men’. The only way to challenge for state power was to amass forces outside of the state, within civil society, until the forces for revolution were of equal power to those of the State resulting in a situation of ‘dual power’. This situation, of two rival and parallel powers coexisting in society could only last a short while, until the new working class counter-power finally maneuvers to take hold of the state apparatuses, overthrowing (or ‘smashing’) the existing State and beginning the task of constructing an entirely new state-form, the workers state.

Poulantzas doesn’t really do Lenin a disservice by characterizing his ideas as such. In fact, ‘dual power’ (which he is at such pains to denounce) was not an idea that Lenin dreamt up before the revolution but a phenomenon which organically unfolded during the revolutionary process in Russia. Lenin simply described what had actually taken place.

For the conditions in which Lenin operated, his state theory was correct. He was also all too aware of the fact that conditions in the West were significantly different to those in Russia and thus a completely different revolutionary strategy would be necessary. The real problem with Poulantzas’s critique is that he fails to understand just how different Gramsci’s strategy and conception of the State are from Lenin’s. He thus assumes that ‘dual power’ for Gramsci is identical to ‘dual power’ as described by Lenin. Crucially, by not acknowledging Gramsci’s concept of the ‘integral state’, Poulantzas wrongly characterizes Gramsci as “a prisoner to the topographical metaphors of the Leninist tradition”2 who “posits civil society as a lowlands external to the state, the locus for the construction of a possible counter-power.”3 An explanation of the concept of the ‘integral state’ will clarify Poulantzas’s error.

The Integral State

In Poulantzas’s investigations into the capitalist State, he saw fit to dispense of the traditional couplet of ‘state/civil society’; thinking it useless when considering the ubiquitousness of the modern State. Gramsci, of course, understood this trend long before Poulantzas; but instead of abandoning the terms, he continued to find use for them as component parts of the new expanded state-form that he himself theorized as the ‘integral state’. It would be easy, now, to denigrate Poulantzas for this oversight; but we mustn’t forget that within the Prison Notebooks, particularly the early books, the terms ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ are still used regularly whilst the concept of the ‘integral state’ is not referenced explicitly until much later. Today’s student also has the benefit of a not inconsiderable body of scholarship investigating and unpacking the ideas of Antonio Gramsci. Referring specifically to the concept of the ‘integral state’, Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment provides an explanation of the concept with a clarity and thoroughness that previously just wasn’t available to us.

For Gramsci, the ‘integral state’ was a new type of state-form which engulfed both political and civil society. Whereas the State that Lenin and the Bolsheviks dealt with in Russia was ‘above society’; in the advanced capitalist West, the state and civil society are not two distinct entities but two component parts of the same organism (the ‘integral state’). There is a dialectical relationship between the two parts so that the capacities of the state to act are always dependant upon the balance of class and social forces, and the role of actors, within civil society (“the ‘social basis’ of the integral state.”4 ) Far from complying with the outmoded ‘topographical metaphors’ which Poulantzas accuses him of, with the concept of the ‘integral state’ Gramsci provides a rich and complex theory of the State that Poulantzas’s formulation has a great deal in common with.

Peter Thomas, in an invaluable article critiquing Poulantzas’s critique of Gramsci, describes the ‘integral state’:

“Gramsci comprehended ‘political’ and ‘civil society’ as ‘attributes’ of the ‘substance’ of the ‘integral state’: whereas ‘political society’ refers to this ‘substance-state’ after the consolidation of the political power of a class in (state) institutions on the basis of the degree of coercion, ‘civil society’ is associated with the constitution of such (potential) political power in forces on the social terrain on the basis of consent.”5

Poulantzas criticized Lenin and Gramsci for situating class struggle outside of the State. Once we comprehend the ‘integral state’ it’s clear that he was mistaken in the case of Gramsci. Classes (and class fractions) primarily compete for hegemony within civil society; but this civil hegemony must progress into political hegemony “by capture of the legal monopoly of violence embodied in the institutions of political society, or the state understood in a limited sense, that is, the state apparatus.”6 If leadership within the social basis of the integral state (civil hegemony) cannot quickly evolve into political hegemony, then the State can (and will) simply crush the threat to ruling class with the repressive state apparatuses. In every state, no matter how much effort is made to garner consent from the subaltern classes, in the last analysis it is violence that maintains the dominance of the ruling classes.

Classes cannot constitute themselves as real political forces anywhere but political society. Forces amassed within civil society (social forces), only represent the ‘potential’ for political power; such power can only be consummated through expression in political society.

For Gramsci then, ‘dual power’ does not mean an amassing of forces external to the State which can then overthrow it, but a struggle within the ‘integral state’ concurrently building hegemony within ‘civil society’ whilst being vigilant to exploit opportunities to maneuver for power within ‘political society’. Thomas again,

“The path to political power for the proletariat would involve, in the first instance, modifying the relation of forces within the integral state, dislocating the mutual reinforcement of coercion and consent exploited by the bourgeoisie in order to further its own class domination…The state apparatuses of the bourgeoisie could be neutralized only when the proletariat had deprived it of its ‘social basis’ through the elaboration of an alternative hegemonic project.”7

It could not be clearer: the consent of the ruling classes can only be undermined by an alternative hegemonic project articulated by a working class movement on the terrain of civil society. Once consent is retracted, a political crisis ensues, and maneuvers for state power are on the agenda.

The phrase ‘mutual reinforcement of coercion and consent is important’: the continued dominance of ruling class ‘common sense’ is ensured by the forceful quelling of dissenting narratives within civil society; whilst as long as this ‘common sense’ ensures the populace that the repressive apparatuses are for its own good (i.e. “crime is on the rise so we need more police on the streets”or “strikes are detrimental to the whole of society, it’s for everyone’s good if the army breaks them up.”) a majority of the population will tend to agree and support the coercion. The multitude of apparatuses that maintain the hegemony of a class (or seek to build a counter-hegemony) within the ‘integral state’ at every level of society is described as the ‘hegemonic apparatus.’ It is this sprawling apparatus that is utilized by a class in the translation of civil hegemony to political hegemony. “Or, to modify the concept of the capitalist state in Poulantzas’s late works, the hegemonic apparatus is a ‘material condensation of a relation of forces’ within a class or class alliance that permits it to confront its antagonist at a political level.”8

Poulantzas criticized Gramsci for not viewing the state in ‘relational terms’, but it is clear that he did: If the ‘integral state’ is the means by which both force is exerted and consent is garnered, as long as rival classes provide their consent and play a role in the hegemonic project of the ruling class; then the state is acting as a social relation. Just as Poulantzas understood that the dominant class or fraction within the ‘power bloc’ had to make class alliances and appeal for consent from other classes both within the bloc and external to it; Gramsci understood that in order for the ruling class to maintain their dominance with minimal tumult, concessions are made to sections of the subaltern classes to ensure their continued support for their class project. The State is not then, homogeneously bourgeois; but riven with class contradictions. It is in fact, for Gramsci long before Poulantzas, “a material and institutional condensation of power relations between and within classes.”9

Finally, Poulantzas criticized Gramsci for imagining political power as a ‘quantifiable substance’ that classes compete to possess. It is in fact the ability of a class to “realize their specific interests” in “opposition to the capacity (and interests) of other classes: the field of power is therefore strictly relational.”10

He rejected a ‘zero-sum’ conception of power in which the loss of power by one class necessarily leads to the gain of an equal measure of power by another opposing class, since there are class relations on numerous levels both internal to the dominant and dominated classes but also (more obviously) between classes in these opposing blocs. The network of power relations is so vast that power lost by one particular class or fraction could represent power gained by any number of other classes and fractions, both in rival hegemonic projects and within class alliances.11

The logic of the ‘integral state’ as outlined above demonstrates that Gramsci also understood power in these same ‘relational terms’. The power relation, for Gramsci, does not just exist between competing classes; but is evident in the process of developing civil hegemony into (institutional) political hegemony. Political power “is immanent to the hegemonic projects by means of which classes constitute themselves as classes (relations within classes) capable of exercising political power (as opposed to an incoherent mass of ‘corporative’ interests confined to the terrain of civil society). Only subsequently do such concrete social relations, in their relationships with other classes, take on state-form.”12

As we saw earlier, forces within civil society can only represent potential power. Once a class gains a foothold in political society, real political power depends upon its ability to “relate adequately to its ‘social basis’ in civil society.”13 The continued support of the class alliances made within civil society must be ensured by a class’s actions in political society remaining true to the hegemonic project to which they consented. This consent cannot be lost, since the position within political society depends upon it.

Towards a Democratic Socialism

One of the tasks of this article is to investigate the continuity between Gramsci’s concept of ‘war of position’ and Poulantzas’s ‘democratic road to socialism’. In unpacking the ‘integral state’, we have been able to undermine a number of Poulantzas’s criticisms of Gramsci, namely: that he suggested that class struggle always takes place external to the state; that power was a ‘quantifiable substance’ rather than a social relation; that ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ represent two distinct and separate terrains; and that a ‘dual power’ strategy means “encirclement of a fortress state.”14 Now we can assess the similarities between Gramsci’s real outlook (as illuminated by Peter Thomas, rather than Poulantzas’s misinterpretation) and the ‘democratic road to socialism’.

In revolutionary circles, due to his abandonment of ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, Poulantzas has too often been dismissed out of hand as a just another treacherous reformist; some have even gone so far as to question whether he is even a socialist.15 However, in Europe today the radical left’s significant gains in the electoral field are pushing old questions about socialist activity in ‘bourgeois parliaments’ to the fore once more. The radical left coalition Syriza’s narrow defeat in the Greek elections provoked intense argument about whether or not revolutionaries should offer the project their support. The question, ‘what does it mean to be a revolutionary in Europe today?’ is by no means a simple one: one thing that can be said, though, is that there isn’t a strategist worth their salt who imagines that a socialist revolution can be achieved without competing for power in political society. Engagement in political society alone cannot lead to a socialist society, but reforms can be won if we act within the state’s institutions and through securing such reforms we can build support for a more radical and ambitious vision than the system as it exists can accommodate.

Now, to Poulantzas’s idea of the ‘democratic road to socialism’:

“For state power to be taken, a mass struggle must have unfolded in such a way as to modify the relationship of forces within the state apparatuses, themselves a strategic site of political struggle. For a dual-power type of strategy, however, the decisive shift in the relationship of forces takes place not within the State but between the State and the masses outside. In the democratic road to socialism, the long process of taking power essentially consists in the spreading, development, reinforcement, coordination and direction of those diffuse centres of resistance which the masses always possess within the state networks, in such a way that they become the real centres of power on the strategic terrain of the State.”16

The misrepresentation of ‘dual power’ we have already addressed, we needn’t go over it again. The notion of altering “the relationship of forces” within the state and “the spreading, development, reinforcement, coordination and direction of those diffuse centres of resistance” sounds very similar to Peter Thomas’s explanation of a working class hegemonic project “modifying the relation of forces within the integral state, dislocating the mutual reinforcement of coercion and consent.” For Gramsci, the dislocation of consent is achieved by an alternative hegemonic project uniting an alliance of oppressed and exploited classes within civil society which can then challenge the ruling class politically through state institutions. For Poulantzas the “centres of resistance” (apparatuses controlled by subaltern classes) are coordinated (this is only possible under the hegemony of one class) and increased in number until they become “the real centres of power”. How the transition from resistances to the power of the dominant classes (formal power) to actual power centres (real power) occurs is never made explicitly clear by Poulantzas but he does go on to write:

“To shift the relationship of forces within the State does not mean to win successive reforms in an unbroken chain, to conquer the state machinery piece by piece, or simply to occupy the positions of government. It denotes nothing other than a stage of real breaks, the climax of which – and there has to be one – is reached when the relationship of forces on the strategic terrain of the State swings over to the side of the popular masses.”17

The subaltern classes give political expression to their projects by challenging state institutions. Importantly, Poulantzas also stresses the necessity of establishing new institutions and new centres of working class organization.

“It is not simply a matter of entering state institutions (parliament, economic and social councils, ‘planning’ bodies, etc.) in order to use their characteristic levers for a good purpose. In addition, struggle must always express itself in the development of popular movements, the mushrooming of democratic organs at the base, and the rise of centres of self-management… The question of who is in power to do what cannot be isolated from these struggles for self-management or direct democracy”18

This is important. Poulantzas’s strategy by no means advocates the abandonment of struggle in the communities, workplaces, campuses etc. He, like Gramsci, also recognizes that the expression of a class project in political society must correspond to a social base in civil society. He is not saying that we simply compete for control of state institutions until we eventually have more power than the bourgeoisie et voila socialism: entirely new working class institutions have to be formed which can be put to use by socialists operating within political society. There is no reason why a version of a ‘democratic road to socialism’ shouldn’t include workers’ militias, women’s assemblies, housing scheme tenancy organizations etc. In fact, for Poulantzas, forces external to political society are absolutely vital if his strategy is to be carried through since, “A broad popular movement constitutes a guarantee against the reaction of the enemy, even though it is not sufficient and must always be linked to sweeping transformations of the State.”19

The point here is that if a socialist hegemonic project on the terrain of political society maintains the consent of its social basis; it will always have mass numbers willing to fight for it if and when it faces clandestine attempts to quell the radical potential of the experience or explicit, violent bourgeois reaction. With regards to the latter he notes, “Clearly, the democratic road to socialism will not simply be a peaceful changeover.”20 Indeed, but if Poulantzas accepts the inevitability of a violent bourgeois backlash; then he is no position to reject the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.

Poulantzas’s problem with the concept of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ is its authoritarian nature and failure to allow a ‘plurality of parties’. Of course, there could quite conceivably be a ‘plurality of parties’ under these conditions: only parties that would pose a direct threat to the gains of the revolution and seek to revert back to the previous order would be forbidden (which we presume Poulantzas could not take issue with). The precarious nature of the temporary stage of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ demands the highest vigilance against bourgeois reaction. The influence of the deposed class may still be considerable; therefore all caution must be taken to protect the gains of the revolution: this includes limiting the liberties of bourgeois threat. Previously, we have explained the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ as similar to the ‘domination’ aspect of Gramscian hegemony:

“A class is dominant in two ways, namely it is “leading” and “dominant.” It leads the allied classes, it dominates the opposing classes. Therefore, a class can (and must) “lead” even before assuming power; when it is in power it becomes dominant, but it also continues to ‘lead’.”21

After a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state (or ‘radical transformation’ thereof), the new hegemonic class must continue to dominate the deposed bourgeoisie in order that it isn’t given the opportunity to forcefully regain dominance. In recognizing the reality of such a threat, Poulantzas cannot deny the necessity of “a ‘special coercive force’ for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat”22 , or ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.

The last, and most controversial, aspect of the strategy to be addressed is the fact that within the ‘democratic road to socialism’ “there is no longer a place for what has traditionally been called smashing or destroying”23 the state apparatuses. Poulantzas no longer speaks of revolution, only ‘radical transformation’. For Poulantzas, because of the democratic road to socialism’s necessary transformation of the relationship of forces within the state; the materiality of the various apparatuses will also be transformed. His argument is that such a radical transformation alters the State so significantly that its individual apparatuses should no longer be seen as the same entities, thus the State is no longer a ‘bourgeois state. This is obviously problematic. If he is willing to accept that new working class institutions will have to be started from scratch on the terrain of civil society; then surely it is conceivable that, if socialists were to take power, these new institutions would be able to (and in fact would have to) replace the make shift institutions transformed from the previous bourgeois state as the new centres of power. The other apparatuses were part of a bourgeois class project and as such will not be suitable for a working class hegemonic project – therefore, operation of said apparatuses must necessarily be transitory, only until they are negated by the new institutions created specifically for a working class project.

An acceptable (though slightly altered) interpretation of Poulantzas’s strategy might read something like this: a working class movement must compete for state power through the already existing political institutions; establishing control over certain state apparatuses primarily begins to offer resistance to bourgeois class projects; any representation in institutional form must correspond to social support at a distance from the state apparatuses; self-organization and the establishment of new working class institutions must begin; connecting and coordinating (through a common project) the “diffuse power centres” within the State begins to alter the relationship of forces therein; an alternative hegemonic project can be articulated undermining the consent of the ruling class causing a political crisis; the political expression of the alternative hegemonic project provides a “real break” in the alteration of class forces within the State (most likely, but no means necessarily, by establishing a parliamentary majority); electoral success must be supported by the project’s social basis which will help ensure that a violent backlash from the deposed ruling class can be quelled; taking hold of the institutions of the state cannot be permanent – the new institutions that have already been established out with the existing state apparatuses, which are tailored to this specific project, should become the new power centres in a new state; the old institutions should be disbanded or destroyed.

Obviously this is working rather loosely with Poulantzas’s own outlook and there are aspects of it that he would reject outright. However, the point has not been to prove that Poulantzas’s ‘democratic road to socialism’ offers a blueprint for socialist strategy today but to illuminate which parts are useful and attempt to incorporate his expansive research on the State and the nature of domination in advanced capitalist Europe into a revolutionary strategy. Poulantzas may have gone too far with some of his conclusions and been too quick to distance himself from certain vital concepts; but his mature works stimulate much needed debate around socialist strategy for our time. In remedying some of his errors with regards to Gramsci, we can begin to right some of the wrongs of Poulantzas’s conclusions. Gramsci recognised that to create a force capable of challenging the State there would necessarily have to be,

“a phase of transformation within the existing state. His belated embracing of the strategy of the United Front…meant a tactical movement with the strategic goal of empowering the subaltern classes, by means of the experience of dealing with the representative institutions of the state, to make the transition from a leading to a dominant group. The primary goal remained the foundation of a ‘state of a new type’.”24

The goal must always be the establishment of a ‘state of a new type’, a workers’ state; but this will only ever come to pass if we build a counter-hegemonic project which can challenge for state power within political society.

[1] Poulantzas, Nicos; State, Power, Socialism; (NLB 1978); 254

[2] Thomas, Peter; ‘Conjuncture of the Integral State?: Poulantzas’s Reading of Gramsci’; Reading Poulantzas; (Merlin 2011) 279

[3] Ibid. 280

[4] Ibid. 287

[5] Ibid. 288

[6] Ibid. 285

[7] Ibid. 289

[8] Thomas, Peter D.; The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism; (Haymarket Books 2009); 226

[9] Thomas; 2011; 285

[10] Poulantzas; 1978; 147

[11] Poulantzas, Nicos; Political Power and Social Classes;  (NLB & Sheed and Ward 1973) 119

[12] Thomas 2009; 226

[13] Thomas 2011, 289

[14] Poulantzas 1978; 258

[15] Barker, Colin; A ’New’ Reformism – A Critique of the Political Theory of Nicos Poulantzas; http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=294

[16] Poulantzas 1978; 258

[17] Ibid. 258-9

[18] Ibid. 259-60

[19] Ibid. 263

[20] Ibid. 263

[21] Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume I; trans. Buttigieg; (Columbia University Press 2007) 136

[22] Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; (Dover 1987) p281

[23] Poulantzas 1978; 263

[24] Thomas 2009; 290-1


Handshakes and diplomacy belie America’s new Cold War-Finian CUNNINGHAM

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US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Russia seems to herald renewed cordial relations between the former archrivals of Washington and Moscow.

The agreement to broker a peace conference on Syria appeared to signal that the two powers were prepared to bury the hatchet over a major geopolitical conflict. But, beneath the patina of diplomatic smiles and handshakes conveyed by Kerry to President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the ominous signs are that Washington is in fact ratcheting up a new Cold War of antagonism.

Within days of leaving his Russian hosts, Kerry was already undermining the supposed peace proposal on Syria. While the initial agreement in Moscow talked about convening a conference between the Syrian government of President Bashar al Assad and various opposition groups to chart a transition from that country’s 26-month-old conflict, Kerry is now telling other world leaders and media that Assad cannot be part of any solution.

For a start, who is Washington to dictate anything about the sovereign internal affairs of Syria? Especially given its genocidal warmongering credentials newly minted from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

But that basic moral point aside, the immediate backsliding by America over Syria to set up stumbling preconditions is a disturbing echo of the Geneva accord signed by all members of the UN Security Council last June, which also called then for a transition process involving the participation of Assad; the Americans promptly reneged on that deal, thus fuelling months of more violence.

This American duplicity over Syria, no doubt reinforced by British premier David Cameron’s follow-up sniveling visit to Russia, should sound alarm bells about the supposed renewed cordial relations between Washington and Moscow.

Recent events need to be interpreted in a bigger historical picture in order to fully appreciate the underlying dynamic of diplomatic overtures.

Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing last month, one apparent positive outcome from the mayhem was the reported cooperation between Russian and American security intelligence over the incident.

That outcome was partly because the two suspected bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, were reportedly of Chechen origin and were being linked in much Western media coverage to Chechen militant groups. Moscow has been battling Chechen armed separatists in its Caucasus region on and off for more than two decades. Thus it appeared that the US and Russia were finding common cause in the much-vaunted «war on terror». In gratitude for Russian intelligence cooperation, US President Barack Obama said that «old suspicions» between the rival powers were giving way to a new era of mutual assistance.

The precise motivation of the alleged Boston bombers is not known. They could well turn out to be unwitting pawns in an elaborate false flag event masterminded by the CIA, FBI and so-called Homeland Security to justify further police-state powers in the US.

However, in the fallout from Boston, Washington seems to be using that event and alleged Chechen circumstances to inveigle Moscow into warmer diplomatic relations. The purpose for those warmer relations would appear to be Washington attempting to undermine Russia’s alliance with Syria and to isolate the Assad government in Damascus. That objective has taken on greater urgency especially since the US-led criminal proxy war in Syria seems to be foundering in its aim for regime change.

But let’s step back a bit. The purported rationale of renewed US cooperation with Russia as a result of alleged Boston terrorism does not bear up to closer scrutiny in the light of more ominous developments – developments that indicate that Washington, far from trying to bury a hatchet with Russia, is in reality embarking on a new Cold War of hostility.

Firstly, separatist groups in Chechnya swiftly denied any involvement in the Boston atrocity. Secondly, what we do know is that any putative «Chechen connection» to the Boston bombings, at least in the superficial «war on terror» notion, defies logic and historical evidence. This is because one of the main foreign sponsors of the Chechen Jihad against Russian authority since the early 1990s has been and continues to be Washington. The denial by Chechen separatists of involvement in the Boston bombings is consistent with the perspective of Washington being a foreign partner.

As other analysts have documented, notably Sibel Edmonds and Michel Chossudovsky, the violent campaign for Chechen secession following the collapse of the Soviet Union was assiduously adopted by the Washington establishment. The fomenting of the Chechen Jihad against the newly formed Russian Federation was a direct continuation of America’s sponsorship of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s against the Soviet Union. Mujahideen leaders, such as Ibn Al Khattab, moved seamlessly from Afghanistan to the new front against Moscow in the southern Caucasus region. American-backed Saudi cash-flow into Afghanistan and the Caucasus is another common denominator, indicating common purpose.

High-profile figures in the Washington establishment, including Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams and former CIA director James Woolsey, were and continue to be staunch backers of the «Free Chechnya» cause. The use of terrorist violence by the Chechen Jihadists, such as the murderous sieges of a Moscow theatre in 2002 and the Beslan school in 2004, has not restrained the American support, despite the latter’s «war on terror» rhetoric.

Although the Chechen armed struggle has since subsided, nevertheless the signals are strong that Washington has expanded its efforts to destabilize the Caucasus region using secessionist political networks.

A major conduit for this geopolitics is the US funneling money into the Caucasus via the breakaway republic of Georgia. Funding through CIA-connected groups such as USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Jamestown Foundation is being used to promote secessionist causes throughout the Southern and Northern Caucasus, including Chechnya.

As Wayne Madsen points out, the appointment last year by the Obama Administration of hawkish figure, Michael McFaul, as the US ambassador to Russia is another clear sign that Washington is pursuing an agenda of destabilizing the border region of southern Russia.

Moreover, Washington has given diplomatic and material backing to Chechen exile groups that have set up in Scandinavia and the former Soviet Baltic countries, including Finland, Latvia and Estonia. The Kavkaz Centre based in Helsinki, which champions the cause of Chechen Jihad and the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in the Caucasus, is understood to be funded by the CIA through USAID, with official Finnish oversight.

Thus, it appears that the US is fostering a pincer movement of destabilization on Russian Federal government authority, from the Caucasus, in the south, to the Baltic northeast.

To appreciate the significance of these developments, a long-term historical perspective of Western-backed border destabilization and indeed terrorism against Moscow is required.

Russia’s European flank has always been seen by the US and its Western allies as a strategic bridgehead for destabilizing the government in Moscow.  No sooner had Nazi Germany been defeated in the spring of 1945 when American and British intelligence began recruiting new cadres from the defeated German Wehrmacht and its fascist partisans across Eastern Europe. Previously, agreements at Yalta and Potsdam between the war-time allies included the handing-over of captured Nazi war criminals to the Soviets in relevant territories of control. However, with the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Americans and British reneged on such arrangements and, shockingly to the Russians, began recruiting German military assets for what would become the new departure of Cold War hostilities against the Soviet Union.

Major General Reinhard Gehlen was the most senior figure among the many Nazi scientists, militarists and intelligence officers recruited. Gehlen was the head of Germany army intelligence (Abwehr) on the Eastern Front. He was known as «Hitler’s Spy Master».

His vast intelligence on the Soviet Union made him a top asset for the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Gehlen was enthusiastically mentored by John Dulles, a rabid anti-communist, who at the close of the war was head of the OSS in Europe. The OSS would soon evolve into the Central Intelligence Agency and Dulles became its director.

Dulles’ protégé Reinhard Gehlen was given a free hand to form what was to become known as the Gehlen Organisation. The «Org» was effectively the CIA’s «eyes and ears» on the Soviet Union. Gehlen was permitted by his American handlers to fill the ranks of the Org with his former Nazi associates. Some 4,000 personnel were recruited by Gehlen, many of them released from American custody, despite the fact that they were wanted war criminals. Members included former commandos of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing squads, and the Gestapo, who had terrorised civilian populations in the Soviet Union during Nazi Germany’s onslaught of Operation Barbarossa, beginning in the summer of 1941 until 1944.

After the war, the Gehlen Organisation and its partisans operated behind Soviet «enemy lines» in the Baltic countries and the Ukraine. Its remit was to terrorise and destabilize, as well as gather information for the American Cold War against the Soviet Union.

The war-torn Soviet Union was still recovering from Nazi horrors in which up to 50 million people were killed and most of its major cities had been devastated, while in the countryside whole communities had been slaughtered by Einsatzgruppen commandos and Waffen SS.

The deep-chilling effect of this betrayal by the Americans and British towards their erstwhile Soviet ally, emerging ravaged from the Second World War, cannot be overstated. The redeployment of the Nazi war machine by the West against the Soviet Union was a de facto declaration of war by other means. Historical writers, such as Christopher Simpson in his book, Blowback, maintain that this strategic embrace of Nazism by American military intelligence, and ultimately the Washington political establishment, was a major factor in presaging the subsequent five decades of Cold War.

One other deleterious consequence of the American CIA’s collusion with Nazi intelligence in Eastern Europe was the latter’s much exaggerated warnings of imminent Soviet threat towards Western Europe. This faulty intelligence was of course partly self-serving for the Nazi spies and the American military-industrial complex. But the legacy of that arms race, fuelled by Nazi-CIA rabid anti-Sovietism, is still warping international relations and efforts for nuclear disarmament to this day.

The alleged «missile gap» of Soviet superiority and threat that the Gehlen Organisation fabricated and which became doctrinal Pentagon thinking continues to be a major impediment to negotiating balanced nuclear disarmament. This irrational doctrinal belief in Washington forms the basis for why the US refuses to begin withdrawing its tactical nuclear warheads from Europe – a move that Russia sets as a reasonable condition for both sides to begin implementing the long-delayed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. After all, Russia does not have close-range tactical nuclear weapons pointed at America’s head.

Far from withdrawing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, Washington is set to embark on a $10 billion programme of upgrading and expanding its arsenal of such weapons. This is in stark contradiction of Obama’s earlier pledges in 2009 and 2010 that his administration would not deploy any new nuclear weapons and was committing itself to free the world of such arms. Not only that, but Washington continues to push its policy of extending NATO membership to Georgia in the southern Caucasus and to the Baltic states. That duplicitous policy unmistakably spells an intensification of American nuclear threat towards Moscow.

Putting these two ominous developments in perspective – the continuation of the long historical trend of destabilizing Russia’s borders with violent dissident groups, from Nazi war criminals and partisans to today’s various Jihadist networks, plus the expansion of nuclear threat – one is left with the compelling conclusion that Washington is not serious about fostering mutual relations, but rather is engaging in a new Cold War of hostile intent towards Moscow.

The diplomatic handshakes, smiles and pseudo-agreements are merely window-dressing for what’s really in the American store.

Is Marxism Deterministic?-Chris Bambery

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Is Marxism deterministic? Take this quote from “The Poverty of Philosophy” –

“In acquiring new productive forces, men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning a living, they change all their social relations. The handmill gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam mill society with an industrial capitalist.”

Easy peasey! Economic change leads to social change. Let’s sit tight and wait for socialism.

This mechanical Marxism was what came to dominate the Second International, the international organisation of social democratic and labour parties, in the years before the First World War. Its intellectual guru, Karl Kautsky, nodded his head towards the necessity of revolution but in reality said, “Don’t worry, we’re on board the train of progress whose next stop will be socialism.”

He could justify this with quotations from Marx – for instance:

“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.”

The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions social, political and intellectual life in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage in their development the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.

With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.” (Karl Marx; Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

Kautsky and later Stalin could cite this to predict the inevitable victory of socialism. Because we are generally on the receiving end of defeat that is, inevitably, a comforting belief to cling on to.

Yet in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx says:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” (Marx,
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

If that’s true then there’s nothing inevitable about the triumph of socialism. The two statements seem to contradict each other.

But in reality I don’t think they do. The point Marx is trying to make is that the way human society develops in order to sustain the means of production act to block progress.

Indeed the ability of humans to carry through a fundamental change in those means of production, revolution, is not only in doubt but it acts against the odds.

In the majority of cases the old order blocks progress, often with disastrous results.

Indeed in the The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argued:

“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

Famously Jared Diamond has, in his book Collapse, the Easter Islanders cutting down their last tree in order to erect one more statue, and then having to evacuate the island. Actually this doesn’t fit the archaeological studies of Rapa Nui, which suggest the arrival of Europeans led to the population collapse through disease and slavery, but lets not let that intrude on a good story.

China had all the technological means to create an industrial society but the ruling order blocked their exploitation until Europeans, less developed at the start of their arrival, did so much damage.

Mayan civilisation seems to have ended with ecological collapse.

Capitalism in Europe had a long and difficult birth with the old feudal order actively intervening to destroy it in central Italy, Bohemia (the Czech Republic) and the Low Countries. Even after the first breakthrough it continued to try and thrust back progress launching the Thirty Years War which devastated central Europe.

The real breakthroughs, which created an unstoppable momentum, were the English revolution of the 1640′s and 50’s and the French Revolution of 1789-94, both of which depended on “parties” carrying them through. Those “parties” were Cromwell’s New Model Army and the Jacobins.

I use inverted commas because they did not have to organise in a tight way like the Bolsheviks did later on, because of something else Marx and Engels recognised. In both cases, in particular in France, the new bourgeoisie had assembled economic and ideological power in ways the working class cannot. They owned the new factories and banks, ran the new universities and published the new encyclopaedias – we own little or nothing.

Even so, in the English case, Cromwell and his supporters, had to thrust aside the moderate Presbyterian majority in Parliament to prosecute the Civil War to eventual end, and then to chop off the king’s head.

Robespierre and the Jacobins had to mobilise the nation (in itself a new concept) in order to win a war with the European old order (financed by Britain) they had not started.

Famously Trotsky asked if the October Revolution could have occurred without Lenin and answered “No,” not because Lenin was a “great man of history” but because he had been shaped in the Russian revolutionary tradition, had helped forge the Bolshevik Party and, from a minority position, won it in 1917 to the possibility of socialist revolution – something the Johnny-come-lately Trotsky, who only joined the party in the course of the revolution, could not have done.

Even the success of a revolutionary overthrow does not guarantee a happy outcome. In the cases of Haiti and Russia the old order intervened with invasion, war and blockade to stifle its development.

So we are back to the “common ruin of the contending classes,” or as Rosa Luxemburg posed it “socialism or barbarism.” When she wrote that. the First and Second World Wars, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, still lay ahead.

This is not a rational system because it’s based on the anarchy of production and because politics and ideology intervene. Take the family; capitalism could exist without it, between 1939-1945, when it needed women workers, it partially did. But “family values” remain central to the ruling order, even though it’s clear the nuclear family is not functioning well.

Today we are going to hell in a hand cart. Few can believe things will be better for our children, or, indeed ourselves. War has become a permanent fixture and it could easily escalate into a nuclear one. The strange weather we are living through is a reminder that ecological disasters have occurred before and probably lie ahead.

In other words, rather than being on the train hurtling towards progress, it’s racing towards disaster. Walter Benjamin in the 1930s told us we had to apply the emergency break and get off it – good advice.

So Marx was no determinist. For him socialism was the self emancipation of the working class but he also said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

We have to make history but we wouldn’t choose to start from here!

Chris Bambery is a member of the International Socialist Group based in London

Gramsci versus Eurocommunism-Chris Harman

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This article first appeared in two parts in the first series of International socialism in 1977. This was at the time when the Italian, Spanish and British Communist Party (then called the CPGB) all accepted “Eurocommunist” positions which involved embracing a non-revolutionary approach to socialism. In the case of the Italian Communists this meant supporting in parliament a Christian Democrat Tory government… The majority of the British party came to be identified, through their magazine Marxism Today with policies to the right of most of the Labour Party left, quoting Gramsci copiously to back their position. The articles later appeared with a brief introduction as a pamphlet, Gramsci versus Reformism.

Part 1: from International Socialism, first series, 98, May 1977

‘DURING the lifetime of great revolutionaries the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, to hallow their names . . . while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it … The bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labour movement concur in this doctoring . . . They omit, obscure or distort the revolutionary side the theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie.’
V.I. Lenin The State and Revolution

ANTONIO Gramsci died forty years ago, on April 27 1937. His death was brought on by years of ill treatment in Mussolini’s gaols. Yet in some ways, he has suffered more misfortune since his death from the distortion of his ideas by those who have nothing in common with his revolutionary principles.

Gramsci was a professional revolutionary from 1916 until his death. Throughout this period he was insistent on the need for a revolutionary transformation of society through the overthrow of the capitalist state.

It was this that put him as a journalist in various socialist papers in the front rank of those demanding revolutionary action from the Italian Socialist Party in the fight against capitalism and war in the years 1916-1918. It was this that led him to the centre of the Turin factory councils’ movement in 1919 and 1920. It was this that led him to take part in the split from the reformist Socialist Party in 1921 to set up a genuinely revolutionary Communist Party. It was this that led him to take charge of that party in 1924-6. It was this, finally, that led him into Mussolini’s prisons, where he tried in note form—the famous Prison Notebooks—to develop his own ideas about Italian society, the strategy and tactics of the struggle for state power, the building of the revolutionary .party, the revolutionary press. He hoped that these notes would provide some help to others who had the same revolutionary goal as himself. Yet his writings have been seized upon by those who want to turn Marxism into an academic and non-revolutionary area of study. This has been made possible by the systematic distortion of Gramsci’s ideas by the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

The first period of distortion

THE first period of this distortion began as soon as Gramsci died. The Stalinist leader of the PCI Palmiro Togliatti, had the Prison Notebooks in his hands within weeks. He left them unpublished for ten years.

When the Notebooks finally began to appear in 1947, it was in a truncated, censored form. Salvatore Sechi has shown what forms the censorship of Gramsci’s letters from prison took:

(1) To remove references to various Marxists—Bordiga, Trotsky and even Rosa Luxemburg—who were being portrayed as ‘fascists’ by Togliatti at the time;

(2) To conceal the fact that Gramsci had broken with the CP’s political line in 1931;

(3) To portray Gramsci’s private life as based on an idealised marriage, ‘a useful myth for making people believe, on the basis of a concrete example, in Communist loyalism with respect to the unity of the nuclear family, an instrument of the collaboration with the Catholics that the Communist Party followed in the post-war period’;

(4) To suppress the fact that Gramsci had tried repeatedly to get hold of books that would give him access to Trotsky’s thought after his expulsion from Russia in 1929.1

The aim of such distortions was to present Gramsci as the loyal Stalinist par excellence. As such Gramsci could provide an extremely useful weapon for an ideology that inspired virtually no social thinkers of note itself—a weapon that could be used to impress other Italian intellectuals with the rich theoretical heritage of the PCI and to conceal the intellectual poverty of the Kremlin and its followers, a weapon also to use against the left, to show that the PCI which governed jointly with the Christian Democrats after 1945, was the same party that split with even the extreme left reformist Maximalists of the Socialist Party in 1921.

The censorship and distortion of his thought was necessary because Gramsci in reality did not fit the Stalinist myth. His last letter before entering prison had been a protest to Togliatti about the bureaucratic treatment given to the Left Opposition inside Russia by Stalin. Togliatti tore the letter up.2.

In 1931 Gramsci’s brother visited him in prison. Gramsci told him that he rejected completely the Stalinist ‘third period’ policy which Togliatti was implementing. (Togliatti had expelled three central committee members for opposing the line, and, under the pseudonym Ercoli, was himself in the forefront of those defending the line against Trotsky’s criticisms). His brother was too afraid to transmit the news to Togliatti—he knew it would mean the party abandoning his brother’s defence.

Gramsci gave up his attempts to hold discussions with the other Communist prisoners because some of them, faithfully parotting Togliatti, denounced Gramsci as a ‘social-democrat’ (the line at the time ruled out all collaboration with reformists because they were ‘social-fascists’). One of the last political statements Gramsci made to his friends before his death expressed disbelief in the evidence against Zinoviev at the Moscow trials. Togliatti, of course, was in Moscow applauding the trials.3

After Gramsci’s death Togliatti tried to present himself as his lifelong political confidant. However , although they worked together closely in 1919-20 and again in 1925-6, they were often far apart over questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics in the intervening years. And there was no contact at all between them after Gramsci’s imprisonment in 1926.
The ‘Eurocommunist’ period of distortion

YET in the end it was Togliatti who allowed the truth about he previous distortions to come to light by releasing Gramsci’s uncensored letters and notebooks for publication. In part this was because he was forced, as other old Communists began to spill the beans about what Gramsci really thought. In part this was because the passing of time made Gramsci a distant and less dangerous figure. But, above all, the aim was to inaugurate a new period in the distortion of Gramsci’s ideas.

In the early 1960s the PCI began to draw away from Moscow. Its leaders dreamed of being readmitted to the Italian bourgeois government from which they had been kicked out in 1947. To achieve this goal they tried to show the bourgeois parties that they were no longer dependent on the Kremlin. Togliatti, one of Stalin’s chief collaborators in the 1930s, became one of his main critics after 1956.

The switch in line led to bitter disputes with the defenders of Stalin internationally and with Stalinist loyalists within the PCI itself. It was a battle on two fronts—to assert the party’s independence from Stalin’s heirs in the Kremlin and to prove that a government that included the PCI would not mean a drastic change in the state machine. Gramsci’s previously censored criticism of Stalin became a weapon on the first front. And a distortion of Grmasci’s ideas on the state was useful on the second.

Gramsci, previously the patron saint of Italian Stalinism, became the patron saint of what is now called Eurocommunism. It is in this form, that Gramsci has been taken up by the intellectual right wing within the Communist Party of Great Britain. He has become the apologist for the ‘historic compromise’ and the PCI’s ‘benevolent neutrality’ towards the Andreotti government’s policy of wage controls and spending cuts. He is called upon by one of the CPGB’s would-be young intellectuals, David Purdy, to defend the view that the breakdown of the Social Contract would be reactionary — because of the harm to the Labour lefts’ ‘alternative economic strategy4. It is no coincidence that the new draft of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, is full of phrases torn out of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks

Yet there are few Marxist thinkers whose spirit was further removed from Eurocommunism than Gramsci’s. His ideas were based on notions today’s Eurocommunists castigate as ‘insurrec¬tionist’, ‘workerist’, ‘spontaneist’, and ‘rank and filist’.

FROM HIS FIRST involvement in the socialist movement Gramsci had a bitter contempt for parliamen¬tarians. He likened them in May 1918 to ‘a swarm of coachman flies on hunt for a bowl of blancmange in which they get stuck and perish ingloriously’. In words that could be applied to Italy today he argued:

‘The political decadence which class collaboration brings is due to the spasmodic expansion of a bourgeois party which is not satisfied with merely clinging to the state, but also makes use of the party which is antagonistic to the state (i.e., the Socialist Party—CH)5’

The emphasis by Gramsci on the building of factory councils in 1919 arose from his conviction that only with new, non-parliamentary institutions could the working class carry through its revolution: ‘The socialists have simply accepted the historical reality produced by capitalist initiative. They believe in the perpetuity and fundamental of the institutions of democratic state. In their view the form of these democratic institutions can be corrected, touched up here and there, but in fundamentals must be respected.

‘We on the other hand remain convinced that the socialist state cannot be embodied in the institutions of the capitalist state … The socialist state must be a fundamentally new creation’.6

Gramsci’s hostility to reformism was to increase still more in the following years. This hostility was aimed not only at the right-wing social democrats around Turati but also at the extreme left social-democrats led by Serrati – the so-called Maximalists, who mouthed a terminology that would send shivers down Eric Heifer’s spine. These reformists first stood back and allowed the workers of Turin to be isolated and defeated by the employers in a great strike of April 1920. Then they refused to give revolutionary leadership to the vast upsurge in militancy that produced in September 1920 the occupation of the factories throughout northern Italy. These betrayals led Gramsci to join those who split from the Socialist Party and founded the Communist Party of Italy in 1921.

Gramsci’s hostility to left and right reformists alike was not a sign of “political immaturity”, which he later outgrew as Betty Matthews of the CPGB would have us believe7. It remained an emphatic note in his last major effort for the Communist Party, before his imprisonment the Theses presented to the Lyon Congress of the PCI in 1926.

The Lyons Theses were the most mature of Gramsci’s published writings. And they were directed mainly against the ultra-left Bordiga group, which had hitherto dominated the PCI. The main point of disagreement was Gramsci’s insistence on exposing the reformist leaders by proposing to them united fronts on specific issues. But at the same time he was adamant that

‘The social-democratic party must be regarded, in respect of its ideology and political function, as the left wing of the bourgeoisie and not the right wing of the workers’ movement, despite its social base, to a very large extent in the working class’.8

This is very close to Lenin’s definition of the reformist parties as ‘bourgeois workers’ parties”.

It is not surprising that, although they are among the best analyses Gramsci made, the Lyons Theses were among the last of his writings to become widely available (they are still not translated into English and are barely mentioned in the main biographies). Gramsci’s hostility to reformism was matched by a clear understanding of the necessity of armed insurrection. As the Lyons Theses put it:

‘The defeat of the working class (in 1919-20 -—CH) was due to the political, organisational, tactical and strategic deficiency of the party of the workers. As a result of this the proletariat did not succeed in putting itself a; the head of the insurrection of the great majority of the population, (my emphasis – – – CH).

Hence the need for a – Communist Party, whose tasks include ‘putting to the proletariat and its allies the problem of the insurrection against the bourgeois state’. Moreover, ‘the Communist Party has to demonstrate the impossibility of the regime installed by fascism being transformed in a ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ sense without a mass struggle that must inexorably develop into civil war,”, (my emphasis – – – – CH) So much for the “negotiated break” with fascism preached by the Eurocommunist Spanish CP!

Of course, there is no open mention of armed insurrection in the Prison Notebooks, written under the watchful eyes of fascist jailers. But Gramsci showed in one of the few conversations he had in prison that he had not dropped his “immature” insistence on insurrection:

“The violent conquest of power necessitates the creation by the party of the working class of an organisation of the military type, pervasively planted in every branch of the bourgeois state apparatus, and capable of wounding and inflicting grave blows on it at the decisive moment of struggle”9.

THE key to the fight for power for Gramsci was the working class -—the flesh and blood workers who toiled in the Turin factories, not the mythical, idealised workers of Stalinist and Maoist vintage. “Capitalist concentration”, he wrote in 1919, “produces a corresponding concentration of working human masses. This is the fact that underlies all the revolutionary theses of Marxism”10.

This stress on the central role of the working class underlay Gramsci’s involvement in the Turin factory councils in 1919 and 1920 and is to be found in the Lyons Theses. “The party”, he insists repeatedly, “must be based on the place of production”. It is “the party of a single class, the working class”. “All the objections to the principle of basing the party on the place of production arise from conceptions that are foreign to the proletariat . . . They are the expression of petty bourgeois intellectuals who don’t see the workers as the conscious and intelligent agents of revolution”. The party must have intellectuals and peasants in it, but “it must fight energetically as counter-revolutionary every conception that makes the party a ‘synthesis’ of heterogeneous elements”. The reason is simple – – – -it is the working class that is the decisive revolutionary force:

“The practice of the movement of the factories (1919-20—-CH) has shown that only an organisation fixed in the place and system of production can permit the stabilisation of contact between the different strata of the labouring mass”.

Gramsci was far from denying the vital importance of winning the landless agricultural labourers and peasants to the revolution. He also saw great advantage to the working class in winning over sections of the middle class. But this meant for him the working class giving a lead, not hiding its socialist aims. The revolutionaries around had to be prepared fight alongside non-revolutionaries around slogans that stopped far short of socialism, like the demand for a Constituent Assembly. But it had to be clear that: “There does not exist in Italy the possibility of a revolution that would not foe a socialist revolution. In the capitalist countries the only class that can bring about a real and profound social transformation is the working class”.

It was on this basis that even after he had broken with Bordiga’s ultraleftism, Gramsci remained bitterly opposed to the right current in the CP led by Tasca (whose politics would put them way to the left of today’s Eurocommunists). Gramsci insisted that it was “pessimism” and a “deviation” to believe that “the working class is not capable of overthrowing the regime, that the better tactic would be a bourgeois-democratic bloc. . . This programme is presented by the formula of the Communist Party as the ‘left wing’ of the opposition of all forces that conspires to bring down fascism”.

The Communist Party had to put forward the some of the same democratic slogans as the bourgeois opposition—but in order to “unmask” the bourgeois parties.

No doubt if Gramsci were alive today his would-be admirers in the PCI and the CPGB would insult him, as they insult us, for not understanding the need for a “broad democratic alliance” of all “anti-monopoly” forces.

THE most developed single area of Gramsci’s thought concerns the fight to develop a revolutionary working-class consciousness.

He begins from the insistence that the working class cannot be trained mechanically for the struggle, like an army. Its discipline depends on its consciousness. And this in turn grows in relation to practical experience of struggle.

Gramsci’s ideas on this issue grew out of a polemic against the three other main currents on the left in Italy in the first year after World War One.

The largest, led by Serrati, saw the Socialist Party as the embodiment of class consciousness. The dictatorship of the proletariat would be the “dictatorship of the Socialist Party”, as he put it. For him class consciousness was identified with the slow, methodical task of building up the party. The second current, the ultra-left revolutionaries around Bordiga, did not believe that Serrati’s party would ever dare to take power. But they also saw consciousness as embodied in a party, the Communist Party, conceived as a small elite group of highly trained and disciplined cadres. Only after it had taken power for the class would Soviets be formed”. The third current, the right wing of the CP led by Tasca, stressed teaching the workers on the one hand, agreements with the “left” trade union leaders on the other. All three groups, despite their other differences, shared the notion that class consciousness was thrown down by the party leaders to the workers, like crumbs to sparrows.

For Gramsci, by contrast, the character and the lead given to the spontaneously developing struggles and institutions of workers determined the growth of their consciousness. For him, as for Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet was not an abstraction to be set up by the party at the right moment, but something born as an organ of workers’ struggle in the factory, perhaps initially around an apparently insignificant issue—the semi-insurrectionary occupation of the factories in September 1920 was sparked off by the breakdown of union-management negotiations over the engineer¬ing national wage agreement12. The Soviet had to develop out of an organisation that bound workers together, regardless of their craft, regardless of their union, regardless of whether they were even in unions, around the point of production, an organisation that united their struggles with those other workers linked to them in the productive process, an organisation that could express their growing awareness of their unity, strength and ability to control production13.

The workers’ councils in Turin did not emerge out of thin air. They began life as “internal commissions” in the factories with similar functions in many ways to those of shop stewards’ committees in Britain. Gramsci saw the role of himself and his comrades on L’Ordine Nuovo, the paper they produced in Milan as being to foster this spontaneous development, to generalise the internal commissions, to broaden their base, to encourage them to take over more and more powers from management, and to link up. As Gramsci wrote: “The problem of the development of the internal commissions became the central problem, the idea of L’Ordine Nuovo. It came to be seen as the fundamental problem of the workers’ revolution: it was the problem of proletarian ‘liberty’. For ourselves and our followers, L’Ordine Nuovo became the ‘journal of the Factory Councils’. The workers loved ‘L’Ordine Nuovo and why did they love it? Because in its articles they discovered part, the best part, of themselves. Because they felt its articles were pervaded by the same spirit of inner searching that they experienced: ‘How can we become free? How can we become ourselves? Because its articles were not cold, intellectual structures, but sprang from our discussions with the best workers: they elaborated the actual sentiments, goals and passions of the Turin working class, that we ourselves had provoked and tested. Because its articles were virtual a ‘taking note’ of actual events, seen as moments in a process of inner liberation and self-expression on the part of the working class. That is why the workers loved L’Ordine Nuovo and how its idea came to be ‘formed’ “14.
When he wrote these lines in 1920 Gramsci was still a member of the Socialist Party. It was only later in the same year, after the defeat of the occupations, that he saw the need to break with left reformism and to form a homogeneous revolutionary party. His writings on factory councils therefore lack any explicit discussion of the notion of how a revolutionary party is to work in them. But these writings do emphasise how individual revolutionaries, and the revolutionary paper, should operate to seize on the embryonic elements of communist organisation and consciousness as they emerge spontaneously, to generalise and co-ordinate them, to make workers aware of them.

Gramsci returned to the same questions in 1923, when he criticised his own willingness for three years to bury his views beneath Bordiga’s dogmatism: “We have not thought of the party as the result of a dialectical process in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organisational and directive will of the centre converge, but only as something floating in the air, which develops in and for itself, and which the masses will reach when their situation is favourable and the revolutionary wave has reached its height”15.
Building the revolutionary party is not a matter of inculcating ideas into the masses through abstract propaganda. Nor is it a matter of waiting until the masses act, stirred on by the effects of economic crisis. It is a question of relating to every spontaneous, partial struggle and attempting to generalise from this. Gramsci took up exactly the same theme again expressed in the more abstract terminology of the Prison Notebooks.

He writes that the job of a party has to be to draw out the elements of’ theory’ implicit in the collective struggles of a class, and to counterpose this ‘theory’ with all the other backward, preexisting ‘theories’ in the workers’ heads. To ‘construct a determined practice a theory that, coinciding with and being identified with the decisive elements of the same practice, accelerates the historical process in act, by making the practice more homogenous, coherent and efficacious . . .’15a.

This is a far cry from the reformist vision of Eurocommunism -the struggle for socialism as a slow, purely ideological process of education that leads workers to vote in ever greater numbers for the correct combination of MPs and trade union officials.
‘Rank and Filism’

GRAMSCI had nothing but contempt for reformist politicians who sought to restrict the development of the class struggle to narrow preconceived channels, “to obstruct its clear course, arbitrarily, by pre-established syntheses (e.g., the historic compromise—CH)”16. In 1919 he began to analyse the source of this obstruction, locating it in the Socialist Party parliamentarians and the trade union bureaucracy. He stressed the alienation many workers felt from their own unions and went onto analyse the origins of this phenomenon in the fact that trade unions operate to gain reforms within capitalism, and are staffed and structured accordingly.

The unions, Gramsci explained, “are all types of proletarian organisations specific to the period of history dominated by capital . . . In this period, when individuals are valued only to the extent that they own commodities and trade their property, the workers too have become traders too in the only property they possess, their labour-power … They have created these enormous apparatuses for concentrating living labour, and have set prices and hours and disciplined the market The trade union has an essentially competitive, not communist character. It cannot be the instrument for a radical renovation of society17.

“Thus a veritable caste of trade union officials and journalists came into existence, with a group psychology of their own completely at odds with that of the workers”18.

This analysis and the experience of the Turin factory councils led Gramsci progressively to come to see the trade union bureaucracy as an active saboteur of the class struggle: “The trade union official sees industrial legality as a permanent state of affairs. Too often he defends the same perspective as the proprietor”19. After the betrayal of 1920 Gramsci became fully aware of the counter-revolutionary role of the trade union leadership: “The Turin and Piedmont general strike clashed head on with the sabotage and resistance of the trade union organisations … It highlighted the urgent need to combat the whole bureaucratic mechanism of the trade union organs, which form the most solid bulwark for the opportunist activities of the parliamentarists and reformists who aim to stifle every revolutionary initiative on the part of the working masses”20.

He could write in the Lyons Theses that “the group that leads the Confederation of Labour must be considered as a vehicle for the dissolving influence of another class upon the working class”.

Nor did the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks abandon these “immature”, “workerist” and “rank and filist” positions. He wrote in 1930: “Neglecting, or worse still despising, so-called ‘spon¬taneous movements, i.e., failing to give them a conscious leadership or to raise them to a higher plane by inserting them into politics, may often have extremely serious consequences”.

He related the defeat of 1920, which paved the way for Mussolini’s coup in 1922, to the failure of Serrati, Bordiga and Tasca alike to offer such leadership to the spontaneous movements of workers and peasants::

“It is almost always the case that a ‘spontaneous’ movement of the subaltern classes (i.e., working people – CH) is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right wing of the ruling class for concomitant reasons. An economic crisis, for instance, engenders on the one hand discontent among the subaltern classes and spontaneous movements, and on the other conspiracies among the reactionary groups, who take advantage of the objective weakening of the government in order to attempt coups d’etat. Among the effective causes of the coups must be included the failure of the responsible groups (i.e., the Socialist Party – CH) to give any conscious leadership to the spontaneous revolts or to make them into a positive political factor”, (my emphasis – CH) 21

Of course, Gramsci was not a ‘workerist’ a ‘spontaneist’, a ‘rank and filist’ in the real sense of the words, in the sense of devaluing the interventionist role of Marxists in the class struggle. Quite the contrary. His own activity in 1919-20 and 1924-26 was a shining (although not, of course, perfect) example of such intervention.
Notes to part one

1. Spunti Critici sulle ‘Lettere dal Carcere’ di Gramsci.
2. A. Davidson Antonio Gramsci London 1977 p. 240.
3. Ibid,, p.269.
4. Speech at Gramsci conference, Polytechnic of Central London, March 6 1977.
5. A. Gramsci Selections from the Political Writings 1910-1920 (here-after PW) London 1977 p.43.
6. Ibid., p. 76.
7. See her review of PW, Morning Star March 3 1977.
8. All quotations from the Lyons Theses are by myself from Tesi de Leone. Rinascita, 30 Anni di Vita e Lotte del PCI.
9. Report of conversation with Gramsci by Athos Lisa
10. PWp. 93.
11. See the articles by Bordiga in PW.
12. See P. Spriano The Occupation of the Factories London 1975.
13. See especially PW section II. ’/«!/$. PW pp. 293-4.
15. Quoted in Davidson, op.cit., p. 208.
16. PW p.46.
17. Ibid., p.99.
18. Ibid., p.105.
19. Ibid., p.268.
20. Ibid., P.320.
21. A Gramsci Selections from the Prison Notebooks London 1971 p. 199.
Gramsci illustrates his argument with an example from medieval Italian history, but clearly he has the defeat of the factory occupations and the rise of fascism in mind. See also ibid., p.225.
Part Two

Eurocommunist distortions of Gramsci’s thought base themselves on the following argument:

Gramsci is said to show that Western societies are quite different from Tsarist Russia. The power of the ruling class in the West rests mainly, not on physical control through the military-police apparatus, but on its ideological domination exercised through a network of voluntary institutions that pervade everyday life (‘civil society’)—the political parties, the trade unions, the churches, the mass media. The repressive state apparatus is only one among many defences of capitalist society.

It follows that the key struggle for revolutionaries is not a direct assault on state power, but the struggle for ideological dominance, for what Gramsci calls ‘hegemony’. Hegemony is won by a long drawn out process that takes many years and demands infinite patience and sacrifice on the part of the working class. In particular, the working class can only become ‘counter-hegemonic’ by winning over the main sections of the intellectuals and the classes they represent, because of the crucial role they play in manning the apparatus of ideological domination. The working class has to be prepared to sacrifice its own short-term economic interests in order to do this. And until it has achieved this task, has become the ‘hegemonic’ class, attempts to seize state power can only end in defeat.1

Justification for this position is claimed to rest on the distinction Gramsci makes in the Prison Notebooks between two types of war:

(1) War of manoeuvre, which involves rapid movement by the rival armies, with thrusts forwards and backwards as each tries to outflank the other and its cities;

(2) War of position, a long drawn out struggle in which the two armies are deadlocked in battle, each hardly able to move forward, like the trench warfare of 1914-18.

‘Military experts maintain that in wars among the more industrially and socially advanced states the war of manoeuvre must be considered as reduced to more of a tactical than a strategic function . . .

‘The same reduction must take place in the art and science of politics, at least in the case of the most advanced states, where ‘civil society’ has become a very complex structure and one which is resistant to the catastrophic ‘incursions’ of the immediate economic elements (crises, depressions, etc.)’.2

The last successful example of war of manoeuvre applied i.e. frontal assault on the state—was the October revolution in 1917:

‘It seems to me that Ilyitch (i.e., Lenin — CH) understood that change was necessary from the war of manoeuvre applied victoriously in the East in 1917, to a war of position that was the only form possible in the West’.3

The basis for this switch in strategy lay in the different social structures of Tsarist Russia and Western Europe:

‘In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West . . . when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks’.4 The formula of permanent revolution ‘belongs to a historical period in which the great mass political parties and the great economic trade unions did not yet exist, and society was still, so to speak, in a state of fluidity from many points of view … In the period after 1870 … the internal and international organisational relations of the State became more complex and massive, and the Forty Eightist formula of the ‘Permanent Revolution’ (Marx adopted this slogan after the 1848 revolution — CH) is expanded and transcended in political science by the formula of ‘civil hegemony’’.5

Gramsci’s formulations should not be accepted uncritically, as I shall show below. But first it must be made clear that they do not permit the Eurocommunists’ conclusions.

In the first place, war of position is a war. It is not class collaboration of the sort pursued by the PCI today. Gramsci’s contempt for the reformists who preached class collaboration did not alter one whit in prison. He compared their passivity in the face of the fascists to ‘the beaver (who), pursued by trappers who want his testicles from which medicinal drugs can be extracted, to save his life tears off his own testicles’6 (so much for that old friend of the CPGB-Jack Jones).

In the second place, it is not a startling revelation to claim that revolutionary politics is devoted for much of its time to ‘war of position’. After all, Lenin and Trotsky had argued at the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921 on the basis of the Russian Bolsheviks’ experience for united fronts with reformist parties in order to win a majority of the working class to communism. They fought bitterly against the ultra-left ‘theory of the offensive’ then much in vogue particularly in the German Communist Party—the view that the Communist Parties could simply storm forward to the seizure of power without the support of the majority of the class through repeated insurrectionary adventures. Gramsci acknowledged Trotsky’s role in turning the Comintern toward the tactic of united fronts.7 And he explicitly identifies the ‘war of position’ with ‘the formula of the United Front.’8

In the Lyons Theses Gramsci sought to apply the united front tactic to Italy. The adoption of this tactic (which he had previously followed Bordiga in opposing) did not represent any slackening of Gramsci’s hostility towards the reformists. He wrote: ‘The tactic of the united front is a political tactic designed to smash self-styled revolutionary and proletarian parties and groups with a mass base’. The tactic is adopted towards ‘intermediate formations that the Communist Party sees as an obstacle to the revolutionary preparation of the working class’.

In the third place, the battle for hegemony is not simply as ideological battle. It is true that Gramsci continually rejects the belief that the deterioration of workers’ economic conditions leads automatically to revolutionary consciousness. He stresses this point because in the Prison Notebooks he is concerned to refute the then current Stalinist ‘third period’ thesis that the world crisis on its own would lead to world revolution. He bends the stick in order to deal with this mechanistic deviation from Marxism.

But Gramsci never denies the determining role of the economy in political life. So while ‘it may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historic events’, ‘they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life’.9 He formulated the relation between the economy and ideology in these terms: ‘mass ideological factors always lag behind mass economic phenomena’ and so ‘at certain moments, the automatic thrust due to the economic factor is slowed down, obstructed or even momentarily broken by traditional ideological elements’. It was precisely because of this lagging of ideology behind the economy that the intervention of the revolutionary party in the economic struggles of workers was necessary to win them from the reformists.

‘Hence … there must be a conscious, planned struggle to ensure that the exigencies of the economic position of the masses, which may conflict with the traditional leadership’s policies, are un¬derstood. An appropriate political initiative is always necessary to liberate the economic thrust from the dead weight of traditional policies.’110

And in one of the central passages of the Prison Notebooks Gramsci returned to the experience of the Turin factory councils movement of 1919-20 in order to contrast the convergence of Marxist theory and spontaneous workers’ struggles that took place there with both narrow, sectional, ‘corporatist’, economic struggles and a purely intellectual and ‘voluntaristic’ approach that preached politics to workers from the outside:

‘The Turin movement was accused simultaneously of being ‘spontaneist’ and ‘voluntarist’… This contradictory accusation, if one analyses it, only testifies to the fact that the leadership was not ‘abstract’; it neither consisted in mechanically repeating scientific or theoretical formulae, nor did it confuse politics, real action, with theoretical disquisition. It applied itself to real men, formed in specific historical relations, with specific feelings, outlooks, fragmentary conceptions of the world, etc., which were the result of ‘spontaneous’ combinations of a given situation of material production with the ‘fortuitous’ agglomeration within it of disparate social elements. This element of ‘spontaneity’ was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, directed, purged of extraneous determinations; the aim was to bring it in line with modern theory (i.e. Marxism—CH)—but in a living and historical¬ly effective manner. The leaders themselves spoke of the ‘spontaneity’ of the movement, and rightly so. The assertion was a stimulus, a tonic, an element of unification in depth; above all, it denied that the movement was arbitrary, a cooked-up venture, and stressed its historical necessity. It gave the masses a ‘theoretical’ consciousness of being creators of historical and institutional values, of being founders of a State. This unity between ‘spontaneity’ and ‘conscious leadership’ of ‘discipline’ is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes’.11

In the fourth place, the struggle to win over other oppressed classes (or for that matter the more backward layers of the working class) does not mean the abandonment by the proletariat of the fight for its own interests. When Gramsci contrasted the ‘corporatist’ with the ‘hegemonic’ approach12, he was contrasting those who merely defend their own interests within capitalist society, as reformist trade unionists do, with those who project their struggle as holding the key to the liberation of all oppressed groups.

In Italy in the 1920s and 1930s the hegemonic approach implied a break with the old reformist strategy of trying to gain concessions for the workers of the North by acquiescing in the impoverishment of the landlord-and-priest-ridden South13. Instead the working class had, as well as fighting for improvement in its own situation, to offer land to the peasants and the prospect of a more worthwhile society to the intelligentsia.

As in the struggle for working class consciousness, the key to winning the peasantry was to be found in the linking of political questions to practical demands. Again and again, Gramsci criticises the extreme radicals (the Action Party) in the struggle to unify Italy in the nineteenth century (and by implication the reformist socialists in the 20th century) for failing to take the only action that would break the hold of reaction and Catholicism in the South— the fight to divide the big estates among the peasants. Because it saw the struggle for hegemony as a purely intellectual struggle, the Action Party missed out. The failure to solve the agrarian problem led to the near impossibility of solving the problem of clericalism.’14

The working class might have to make ‘certain sacrifices of an economic-corporative kind’ in order to gain the support of other classes. ‘But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential; for though hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group (the working class—CH) in the decisive nucleus of economic activity’15.

There is no indication whatsoever that Gramsci had in the Prison Notebooks abandoned his position in the Lyons Theses, according to which the workers had to go out of their way to win over the peasants, but this could only be done by building workers’ committees based on the economic position of workers in the factories and using these committees to stimulate the formation of peasants’ committees. Interestingly, although Gramsci spoke of ‘ruling blocs’ and although he stressed the need of the working class to win the peasantry, he did not use the then fashionable Stalinist jargon about ‘worker-peasant blocs’. Still less did he conceive of the middle-class intellectuals as an ally on the level of equality with the working class. They could only be won to follow its lead in the course of struggle.16

In the fifth and final place, Gramsci never suggests in the Prison Notebooks that the struggle for hegemony can by itself solve the problem of state power. Even in a period when the ‘war of position’ plays a predominant part, Gramsci speaks of a’ “partial” element of movement’16, of ‘the war of manouevre’ playing ‘more a tactical than a strategic function.’17

To put it another way: most of the time revolutionaries are involved in ideological struggle, using the tactics of the united front in partial struggles to win leadership from the reformists. Nonetheless, there are periodic moments of violent confrontation, when one side or other tries to break through the other’s trenches by frontal assault. Armed insurrection remained for Gramsci, as he made clear in his prison conversations, ‘the decisive moment of struggle.’

The stress on ‘war of position’ in the Prison Notebooks must be set in its historical context. It is a metaphor designed to hammer home a concrete political point—the revolutionary will of a few thousand revolutionaries at a time of crisis does not create the preconditions for a successful insurrection. These preconditions have to be prepared by a long process of political intervention and ideological struggle. To think otherwise, as did Togliatti and other ‘third period’ Stalinists in the early 1930s, was sheer madness. In the circumstances, Gramsci was less concerned to argue for the necessity of armed insurrection—after all, the Stalinists were at the time hell-bent on organising armed uprisings however hopeless— but to stress, as Lenin had in July 1917, and again in the case of Germany in 1921, that an insurrection can only succeed with the active support of the majority of the working class.

It is therefore misleading to apply the metaphor as if it were of universal validity independent of its historic context. After all, even in purely military terms, static ‘war of position’ is not always appropriate—as the French general staff discovered to its cost when the German tanks bypassed the Maginot line in 1940.
Ambiguities in Gramsci’s formulations

ANY metaphor as liable to misinterpretation as Gramsci’s ‘war of position’, ‘war of manoeuvre’ distinction must itself be open to criticism. Perry Anderson has pointed out in an interesting article that Gramsci’s metaphors involve a number of ambiguities and contradictions, a conceptual ‘slippage’ capable of being used by reformists to distort the revolutionary essence of Gramsci’s work.18 Certainly, Gramsci’s contrast between ‘war of manouevre’ and ‘war of position’ is rather vague. At one point the transition from the political ‘war of position’ takes place after 1871; yet at another it is shifted to the post-stabilisation of the world capitalist economy in the early 1920s. This confusion over timing is important because it leaves unsettled whether ‘war of position’ is an eternal strategy or one appropriate only in certain periods. Some of Gramsci’s formulations suggest the former interpretation. But it must be ruled out by his repeated insistence on the interaction between the revolutionary party and the ‘spontaneous struggles’ of the class, and belief in the necessity of armed insurrection.

A second confusion lies in the contrast between Russia and the West. The contrast involves a misrepresentation of the history of the Russian revolutionary movement. In fact, the first attempt at a ‘war of manouevre’—the armed attacks on the Tsarist regime by the Decembrists in the 1820s and the Populists who succeeded in assassinating the Tsar in 1881—failed. Subsequent generations of revolutionaries had to adopt a different strategy. The overthrow of the autocracy required a prolonged ‘war of position’—ten years of Marxist discussion circles and another ten years of ‘economistic’ agitation before the mass party could emerge in 1905, and then 12 years of recuperation of forces. This ‘war of position’ was necessary to prepare the ground for the ‘war of manouevre’ in 1905-6 and 1917.

To extend Gramsci’s metaphor: the military war of position becomes obsolete and dangerous with the discovery of a new weapon that can break through the other side’s defences, as the tank could at the end of World War I (although it was not used to real advantage) and at the beginning of World War II. The political equivalent of the tank is the sudden, spontaneous revolutionary ‘thrust from below’ (in Gramsci’s words) of the masses, that took even Lenin by surprise in February 1917. Revolutionaries cannot adapt to these sudden changes without a rapid switch from a defensive posture to one that relates to the new ‘war of manouevre’, attempting to guide and influence the forward surge. Lenin’s greatness, as Tony Cliff has shown, lay in his ability to grasp when the strategic switch from ‘war of position’ to ‘war of manouevre’ must be made.

What Lenin, (and Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg) grasped was that the long drawn out struggle for hegemony, for an organisation and consolidation of one’s own forces, is necessary at certain stages in the history of the revolutionary movement. But it contains within it a danger—the very success of organisation at one stage in the struggle leads to conservatism when there is a shift in the mood of the masses.

After all, the archetype of the party waging the ‘war of position’ in pre-World War I Europe was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). It built up a huge network of ‘fortifications’ within bourgeois society—hundreds of papers, hundreds of thousands of party members, local co-ops and clubs, a woman’s movement, a powerful trade union machine, even a theoretical journal capable of attracting admiration from some sections of established intellec¬tuals. Its attempt to maintain these ‘positions’ when the World War broke out led to it moving from opposition to class collaboration. (Interestingly, the very metaphor of the ‘war of positions and manoeuvre’ was employed in terms very close to Gramsci’s by Kautsky against attacks by Rosa Luxemburg on the SPD’s reformist leadership in 1912”).
Russia, Italy and the West

ITALY is taken by Gramsci as the prototype of the society in which ‘the war of position’ is necessary. Yet Italy in the 1920s and 1930s was far from being a typical advanced capitalist society. The things Gramsci regards as characteristic of ‘civil society’—the church, urban political and cultural association, the plethora of bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties, the influence of ‘functional intellectuals’ like teachers, lawyers and priests—seem today to be a transient historical phenomenon, symptomatic of Italy’s backwardness in the 1920s and 1930s, the numerical preponderance of the peasantry, the lumpenproletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. Even urban-based political and cultural societies tend to decline in importance in truly advanced capitalist societies.

In Britain, and the same is true of the other advanced capitalist countries, the post-war period has been characterised by the phenomenon of ‘apathy’—a falling away of mass participation in political and cultural associations like the Labour Party and the WEA, the decline in the political influence of the Orange Lodges in Liverpool and Glasgow, a halving in the number of active church members in ten years. The ‘functional intellectuals’—the lawyers, teachers, priests, doctors—no longer play a key role in local opinion formation.

Advanced capitalism leads to a centralisation of ideological power, to the atomisation of the masses—with the crucial exception of workplace-based union organisation—and to a weakening of old political and cultural organisations.

On the one hand the intensification of the labour process has played a role—shift work makes the organisation of local political or cultural associations difficult; on the other hand, the commer¬cialisation of social life, the advent of radio and television, and the concentration of control over the mass media has weakened the attractiveness of other ‘leisure’ activities. The number of effective structures of ‘civil society’ between the individual and the state has fallen. More and more the means of mass communication provide a direct intermediary. At the same time, the significance of workplace-based trade union organisation has grown dramatically; to become the one institution of’ civil society’ not subverted by the atomisation.

In the circumstances, the ‘defensive network of trenches’ available to the ruling class in a time of crisis becomes very weak indeed once workers really move into action. Indeed, the bourgeoisie becomes critically dependent upon the trade union bureaucracy, and to a lesser extent upon the reformist political organisations, to hold back the working class. But over time this leads to an erosion of faith in the reformist leaders and to spontaneous eruptions by workers that even they cannot control. Under such circumstances a real ‘war of manouevre’ can develop, in which workers, despite their lack of revolutionary consciousness, find themselves in direct conflict with the capitalist state.

As Tony Cliff pointed out in a very important article in 1968, advanced capitalism creates ‘privatisation’ and ‘apathy’. But ‘the concept of apathy is not a static one. When the path of individual reform is closed apathy can transform itself into its opposite, direct, mass action. Workers who have lost their loyalty to the traditional organisations are forced into extreme, explosive struggles on their own.20

Gramsci’s metaphors were used 45 years ago to deal with concrete problems of strategy. His epigones attempt to deploy them in a crude way to block off discussion today, without noticing that in the years since society has changed in certain crucial ways. That is a piece of dogmatism no different to the treatment Marx, Lenin or Trotsky have suffered on so many occasions.
Gramsci’s weaknesses

THE conditions in which Gramsci lived and wrote imposed certain built-in limitations to his thought. In the case of the Prison Notebooks these limitations provide the basis for the distortions to which his ideas have been subjected.

The first and most obvious limitation was that the fascist state was looking over Gramsci’s shoulder, reading every word he wrote. To avoid the prison censorship he had to be vague when referring to some of the most pointed concepts of Marxism . He had to use an ambiguous Aesopian language that concealed his real thoughts, not only from his gaolers, but also from his Marxist readers and sometimes, one suspects, from himself.

To take a crucial point, Gramsci often uses the bourgeois struggle for power against feudalism as a metaphor for the workers’ struggle for power against capitalism. But the comparison is dangerously misleading. Because capitalist relations of production have as their starting point commodity production, which can develop within feudal society, the bourgeoisie can use their growing economic dominance to build up their ideological position within the framework of feudalism before seizing power. However, the working class can become economically dominant only through taking collective control of the means of production, which requires the armed seizure of political power. It is only then that they will gain control of the printing presses, universities, etc, where the capitalists could buy these up long before becoming politically dominant. Gramsci necessarily had to seem ambiguous on this point. But today the ambiguity provides an excuse for would-be intellectuals who want to pretend they are fighting the class struggle through ‘a theoretical practice”, ‘a struggle for intellectual hegemony’, when in fact they are only advancing their own academic careers.

Moreover, Gramsci could not write openly about armed insurrection. This gap in the Prison Notebooks has enabled his epigones to ignore the harsh reality of the state power that held Gramsci in its grip.

But there were other, nonphysical limitations on Gramsci. He went to goal just as Stalin was tightening his hold on Russia. His failure to come to terms with this process marked his thought more deeply than may at first be apparent.

Gramsci declared his support for the Stalin-Bukharin bloc formed in 1925. He seems to have accepted as part of an international ‘war of position’ the attempt to build ‘socialism in one country’ through making concessions to the peasants. So he identified Trotsky’s opposition to socialism in one country with an ultra-left rejection of the united front—even though he knew perfectly well that Trotsky was one of the main authors of the tactic of the united front.

Gramsci, as we have seen, was very aware and very critical of the suffocating bureaucratism of Stalinism. But his acceptance of the Bukharin-Stalin version (1925-28) of ‘socialism in one country’ prevented him analysing what had gone wrong in Russia.

He writes, in the Prison Notebooks, The war of position demands enormous sacrifices by infinite masses of people. So an unprecedented concentration of hegemony is necessary, and hence a more ‘interventionist’ government which will take the offensive against the oppositionists . . .’21

Yet this half-apology for totalitarian trends is followed by a warning quotation from Marx, ‘A resistance too long prolonged in a besieged camp is demoralising in itself. It implies suffering, fatigue, loss of rest, illness and continual pressure, not of the acute danger which tempers, but of the chronic danger which destroys’. Gramsci seems to want to both criticise this state of affairs, and to say that it is based upon a correct strategy. This contradiction cannot fail to have debilitating effects on other aspects of his theory.

In 1919-20 he grasped as no-one else in Western Europe the interrelation of the struggle in the factory and the creation of the elements of a workers state. He also came to see the dialectical interplay between the development of workers’ democracy and its propellant, the revolutionary party. This understanding remains in much of the work Prison Notebooks—but at points it is corroded by the tendency to see the Stalinist ‘socialism in one country’ as providing a method for waging the ‘war of positions’ to be copied elsewhere.

Gramsci was not unique in failing to come to terms with Stalinism. At the time he was imprisoned and lost contact with the international movement the full horrors of Stalinism were a thing of the future. Revolutionaries as varied as Andreas Nin and James P Cannon still supported Stalin against Trotsky at that time. But in Gramsci’s case the failing left an element of confusion in his theory that is seized on by those trying to justify reformist policies today.

There is one final more fundamental weakness in Gramsci. Although he provides a correct abstract account of the relation between economics and politics, Gramsci is alone among the great Marxists in not integrating a concrete economic dimension into his political writings. This produces arbitrariness in his writings that does not exist in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg or Trotsky. For instance in 1925 he thought fascism was about to collapse. Yet in the Prison Notebooks, a few years later, he wrote as if it faced a long life. Again, he talks of the dangers of a ‘corporate’ integration of the working class into the system, without discussing the economic conditions that could make this possible.

In general, there is a failure to show the real interrelation between a particular economic situation and political and ideological struggles of individuals it affects. In the years 1918-26 he was able to fill this gap to some extent by relying on his direct experience of the class struggle. So his best writings are those where, mixing with the workers and trying to guide them, he is grappling with central problems of current struggles.

But in 1926 the fascist state snatched him away from any contact with the masses. Gramsci was only too aware of what this meant: ‘Books and magazines contain generalized notions and only sketch the course of events in the world as best they can: they never let you have an immediate direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general’ (Letter to Tatiana, November 1928, quoted in Boggs p62). This was true of Gramsci, who was unable, without direct personal experience, to grasp the concrete interrelation between the economic situation and the political reaction to it of individuals. But it was not true, say, of the Marx who from exile could write the 18th Brumaire, or the Trotsky who from confinement in Turkey could write profoundly about daily developments in Berlin.

The Prison Notebooks suffer above all from this inability to move from abstract concepts to concrete analyses of concrete situations. It is this, of course, that appeals to those bureaucrats and academics who want a reformist ‘Marxism’ divorced from the mass struggles of workers.

If such a project runs counter to the main thrust of Gramsci’s life and thought, we should not ignore the weakness in the Notebooks that arises from their lack of concreteness. Whatever their insights they do not have the greatness of the finest works of Marx, Lenin or Trotsky.

The fascist prosecutor at Gramsci’s trial demanded his imprisonment ‘to stop this brain working for 20 years’. The fascists did not succeed in this attempt. But, by cutting Gramsci off from direct involvement in the class struggle, they did succeed in preventing his Marxism from fully realising the potential displayed in L’Ordine Nuovo and the Lyons Theses.
1. Two recent examples of this interpretation are the concluding section of D. Purdy The Soviet Union—state capitalist or socialist? London 1976 and R. Simon Gramsci’s Concept of Hegemony, Marxism Today March 1977.
2. A. Gramsci Selections from the Prison Notebooks (hereafter PN) London 1971 p.235.
3. Ibid., p. 237.
4. Ibid., p.238.
5. Ibid., p.243.
6. Ibid., p.223.
7. See ibid, p.236—although Gramsci, for reasons of his own to which we will return, elsewhere identifies Trotsky with the ‘theory of the offensive’.
8. Ibid., p.237.
9. Ibid., p. 184.
10. Ibid., p. 168.
11. Ibid., p. 198.
12. Gramsci did not, however, invent this terminology, as many Gramsci ‘scholars’ who have neglected to study the history of the Comintern think. See, for instance, G. Zinoviev ‘The NEP Peasant Policy is Valid Universally,’ in H. Gruber (ed.) Soviet Russia Masters the Comintern New York 1974.
13. See A. Gramsci The Southern Question in The Modern Prince and other writings New York 1970.
14. PNp.101.
15. Ibid., p. 161.
15a Materialismo Storico, p 38 – my translation
16. PN ., p.243.
17. Ibid., p.235
18. P Anderson The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, New Left Review 100. The article is even more interesting because it knocks down so many positions defended by Anderson himself in the past.
19. Ibid., pp.61-9. And see also L. Basso Rosa Luxemburg London 1975 pp. 152-3 n 148.
20. T. Cliff On Perspectives, International Socialism 36 p16.
21. PN pp.238-9.

•Phrases about such ‘blocs’ have been attributed to Gramsci as part of the fashionable ‘Gramscian’ phraseology. But they hardly ever appear in his own writing and when the word ‘bloc’ is used it is usually in quotation marks and applies to bourgeois coalitions of forces.



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“The Gramscian Moment”: an interview with Peter Thomas

Posted by admin On May - 13 - 2013 Comments Off on “The Gramscian Moment”: an interview with Peter Thomas

Author: Peter Thomas
Peter Thomas’s book “The Gramscian Moment”, about the ideas of the Italian Marxist leader Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), is now available in paperback.





You argue that Gramsci’s discussion of “hegemony” is more political and class-based than those who interpret it the idea as a diffuse striving for cultural influence would admit, and moreover is crystallised in a project of a “hegemonic apparatus”. You explain Gramsci’s idea of “hegemonic apparatus” in this way. “A class’s hegemonic apparatus is the wide-ranging series of institutions (understood in the broadest sense) and practices – from newspapers to educational organisations to political parties – by means of which a class and its allies engage their opponents in a struggle for political power… the means by which a class’s forces in civil society are translated into power in political society”.

In that sense, however, the working class does not have a hegemonic apparatus in any country in the world. There is class struggle, there are institutions based in the working class where that struggle takes place, but no “hegemonic apparatus”. What guidance does the idea of “hegemonic apparatus”, or of united front, give us in this situation? Or again. Take the strongest ever revolutionary working-class party to exist in a capitalist country, the German Communist Party of the early 1920s. It was very decidedly a minority in the trade unions, and not clearly a majority in the factory councils. The united front tactic was about contesting those areas. The unions, for example, were not part of a “hegemonic apparatus” as something already set up and strategically integrated. What would the idea of “hegemonic apparatus” indicate about what to do in the unions?

It’s useful to come back to another question: in what way did Gramsci further develop the idea of hegemony? It’s important to note that Gramsci derives the concept of hegemony directly from the debates in Russian Social Democracy, where it meant a leading position of the working class in relation to the peasantry in the context of a democratic revolution against Tsarism. It is also important, and sometimes not noted, that Gramsci also develops the post-revolutionary concept of hegemony, as it was elaborated by Lenin in particular.

Hegemony, in the Russian context, is used continuously by Lenin as a synonym for political leadership. Gramsci himself explicitly makes this equation of hegemony with political leadership on numerous occasions throughout the Prison Notebooks. He also explicitly refers to the way in which Lenin in his final years had tried to theorise and to develop practically a concept of hegemony that went beyond the earlier debates, one that would indicate a leading role for the Russian working class in the post-revolutionary process.

What Gramsci is referring to there, in a very complicated and difficult form, is the policy that Lenin attempted to outline and to realise after the civil war – what Moshe Lewin describes as “Lenin’s last struggle”. Under very difficult circumstances, the Russian working class needed to assume the responsibility of political leadership in the process known as the New Economic Policy, a process filled with all sorts of contradictions. Lenin saw the possibility within that process of the Russian working class now not simply leading the peasantry in a struggle against Tsarism, but positing a political programme that could reshape the social relations inside a social formation devastated after the civil war.

On an international level, that battle had an important link to the politics of the united front – the necessity of the politics of the united front, not merely as a tactical consideration, but in a deeper conception of the political potential of the organised working class not only in Russia but internationally.

In the Prison Notebooks Gramsci attempts to further develop insights that he believes to see in the political practice of the last Lenin, in particular from the time Gramsci was in the Soviet Union, between June 1922 and November 1923, and during which time he was interacting directly with the Bolshevik leadership. The concepts of hegemony and political leadership were of course widespread in the Communist movement of the 1920s. Gramsci was not the only person to develop a theory of hegemony. (Stalin, for example, quite explicitly invoked the category and its “Leninist” heritage; Gramsci was well aware of this attempted inheritance and was highly critical of its vulgarisations and deformations). Gramsci wanted to develop the concept further through reflecting on Lenin’s considerations and in particular his political practice.

I think he developed it in two directions. On the one hand, on his return to Italy, and throughout the mid-1920s, when he assumed the leadership of the Communist Party of Italy, in very difficult circumstances, he tried to comprehend what the concept of the united front could mean under fascist rule in Italy. In prison, Gramsci continued that project, in a theoretical form, by considering the possibilities for working-class leadership in the struggle against fascism. In this period of isolation from daily political engagement as a professional revolutionary, Gramsci also attempted to develop the concept of hegemony into what he refers to as a historical-political criterion, a criterion for historical study. He tries to discern the ways in which such a concrete concept of political leadership can be used to throw light back on the long process, the long democratic revolution of modernity and the constitution of the new forms of modern politics.

On the basis of experiences that occurred in the “East” – according to the classic distinction – Gramsci attempts to comprehend the history of the “West”. In some sense, the intensity of the Russian revolutionary process had opened up forms and ways of thinking, new concepts for Gramsci, that could help him understand what was specific about democratic politics in its broadest sense in the context of the modern bourgeois state, the way that different social groups attempt to win support and consent, to engage in acts of coercion against their opponents, to expand their own forces while reducing those of their opponents, and so forth.

As he was studying the history of the West, he noted a whole series of practices deployed by the bourgeoisie throughout the “long nineteenth century”, from the French Revolution onwards, that were aimed to consolidate its position of political leadership. (For Gramsci, political leadership is not opposed to social or cultural leadership; it necessarily includes those elements and provides their fullest development). He simultaneously retranslates the term hegemony back into a consideration of the kind of hegemony it would be necessary for the working class to build in the West. He finds here many similarities with the forms of association which the bourgeoisie had developed – networks, societies, groups, clubs etc. – but he also finds an important distinction.

He states it this difference in very traditional, remarkably classical philosophical terms. Bourgeois hegemony, because it is leadership by a class that needs to conceal the unequal social, economic and juridical relations which that lie at the heart of bourgeois claims to formal equality, necessarily engages in a distortions and mystifications; a politics of the absence of the truth. For a proletarian hegemony, Gramsci argues that a politics of truth is necessary. He states on many occasions that the precondition for doing mass politics in the working classes is to speak the truth.

“The philosophy of praxis, on the other hand, does not aim at the peaceful resolution of existing contradictions in history and society but is rather the very theory of these contradictions. It is not the instrument of government of the dominant groups in order to gain the consent of and exercise hegemony over the subaltern classes; it is the expression of these subaltern classes who want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths, even the unpleasant ones, and in avoiding the (impossible) deceptions of the upper class and – even more – their own” (Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p.395-6).

That is necessary for the new forms of democratic associations – of societies, networks, and so forth – that would be capable of functioning in what I call in my book “a dialectical pedagogical relationship”. It means forms of proletarian hegemony that would attempt to echo, and deepen, and make even more complex, the forms of hegemony that Lenin in his last years attempted to realise.

It is often forgotten that one of Lenin’s last overriding concerns was the need for the Russian working classes to play not only a role in economic reconstruction but also in cultural renovation. The “last” Lenin was concerned, for example, with literacy programmes. Why? Because mass literacy would enable mass participation in politics. He was concerned with the establishment of cultural institutions that would extend the possibility of political relationships and practices, not merely in the city but throughout the countryside, permitting a genuinely democratic participation in political life by all strata of the labouring classes.

His work was dedicated to convincing layers of the working class to take part actively in this process, in a role of leadership. They would then become forces for modernisation and renovation of all the social relations throughout Russian society.

In this sense, there is a very important continuity of Lenin’s legacy in Gramsci’s thought, both before his imprisonment in his role as leader of the Italian Communist Party but even more intensely, in a theoretical form, in the Prison Notebooks.

One of the ways in which Gramsci goes beyond the Russian debates – not only the pre-revolutionary debates, but also the contribution of “the last Lenin” – consists in the development of the concept of a “hegemonic apparatus”. This concept, with Gramsci, develops slowly in his work throughout the Prison Notebooks project and is equated with different terms on different occasions. One particularly significant one is that of the “material structure” of the superstructures. Gramsci was attempting to think through the way in which the superstructures, as derived from the base-superstructure metaphor, could be conceived of not simply in ideological terms, as ideas and concepts, but quite materially, as practices, relations and institutions. He wanted to look at the way in which these became unified as an articulated system of institutions under the banner of the project of a particular class or social group.

We thus have in Gramsci not only the notion of a hegemonic apparatus, in the singular, but also of hegemonic apparatuses, in the plural – a whole series of hegemonic apparatuses that come together and are unified at the political level by the capacity of elements of a particular social group or class to draw into a dialogue, or, to use Gramsci’s term, to “translate” between, different hegemonic practices in different fields of the society.


A “hegemonic apparatus” is not just a “series of institutions”, is it? In the sense of a string of things, one after the other? Doesn’t it need to have an internal structure? Doesn’t a working-class “hegemonic apparatus” require the development at its centre of a revolutionary political party, shaping and leading the other institutions, trade-unions, community organisations, workers’ councils, and so on?

Certainly, we are not dealing with an indifferent series of one thing after another. Gramsci is quite aware that there are different hierarchies and structures and relations between practices. Not all practices are equal to each other, or rather, not all practices have the same capacity to mobilise and valorise other social and political practices. In other words, Gramsci is not an indifferent liberal pluralist.

A hegemonic apparatus, or a unity in translation of different hegemonic apparatuses, does indeed have a structure. However, the fundamental question for Gramsci is how such a structure of hegemonic apparatuses is constituted, because this determines the type of structure that it will become. Herein lies one of the real novelties of Gramsci’s conceptualisation of the nature of modern social formations and of the formation of an adequate instrument of political leadership, or of a revolutionary political party.

Gramsci was not interested in the very widespread conception – dominant in his time, as diffused by neo-Kantianism – of a series of essentially unrelated value-spheres, a series of zones in the society which are aggregated to form society but which are relatively, or sometimes even absolutely, autonomous from each other. He was aware that all social practices are interrelated, precisely because of his Marxist emphasis on social practices as social relations within a social totality, not merely as the expressions of some regional logics.

That led him to conceive of what I would describe as the “political constitution of the social”. Politics, for Gramsci, was not conceived of as a moment of administration or command from above, but always in terms of the transformative dimensions of a social formation or relations between social formations. It is the transformative dimension, and the possibility of intervention by various projects, which then defines the possibilities concrete forms of “the social”, or the social relations in which we live our everyday lives. Gramsci does not argue that politics emerges from and then separates itself from the social, as an administrative instance, in a process of rationalisation; such would be one of the readings of the political theory of a figure slightly older than Gramsci, namely, Max Weber. Rather, for Gramsci, politics figures as an immanent transformative instance of social relations that both go beyond it and also, in a certain sense, fall behind it.

This theory of what I have described as the “constitution of the political” leads Gramsci to conceive of the revolutionary political party not as the centre of this series of practices and relationships that are articulated in a hegemonic apparatus, as in the conception of the political party which was widespread in Gramsci’s own time, both theoretically and practically; the role of the party in classical German Social Democracy before the First World War would be the prime example of this. As I note in my book, however, Gramsci’s notion of a political party, “the Modern Prince”, remained in many ways a promise for the future, not realised in his time. In many respects, he outlined in the Prison Notebooks a novel theory of the political party that goes beyond the main currents of his own time, and indeed, also beyond his own prior practice in the “Bolshevisation” of the Italian Communist Party.

It has sometimes been assumed that “the “Modern Prince” in Gramsci is merely a codeword or a euphemism for actually-existing political parties in his own time. But that reading neglects the fact that in the Prison Notebooks Gramsci engaged in a very intense self-critique of his own political role and of the different conceptions of a political party that he had affirmed in his years as an activist. Those ranged from a rejection of the political party-form through to some of the undesirable elements of “Bolshevisation” [in 1924-5] and, at some moments, it needs to be admitted, invoking making too many concessions to bureaucratic deformations of the party-form in his own practical work.

Gramsci engages in intense self-critique of this in the Prison Notebooks, as of many elements of his previous work, and wants to conceive of a qualitatively new form of a political party which that will be adequate to respond to what he sees as the challenges of the time. When he refers to the party as the “Modern Prince”, in an allusion to Machiavelli, he is attempting to think through the capacity for a unitary but plural conception of a revolutionary political party, which becomes itself a laboratory for experimentation in the forms of democratic political practice that it will be necessary also to carry outside the party into the society as a whole.

That party for the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks thus does not function as the centre, or the origin, of a hegemonic apparatus. It does not just begin from a core group of militants in one particular zone of society who progressively articulate and develop their networks, spreading out through society. Gramsci conceived of the Modern Prince as a new type of dialectical-pedagogical political and social relation capable of being translated into different contexts and then, just as crucially, of being retranslated backwards, enriched by the dialectical pedagogical exchange and interchange. We have at the end a vision of the Modern Prince not as a particular geographical location in the society, or even as a pre-existing element, but as the result of all of these relations, translations, and re-translations, as they are constituted in an ongoing process.

Gramsci conceived of the revolutionary political party, in its institutional form, more as a “result” which could then be used to describe, retroactively, an entire political process, but which does not precede or determine it in the sense of a traditionally linear relation of cause and effect. More accurately, we should say that the revolutionary political party is itself a political process, a new type of social and political relation capable of continuously drawing new elements into a dialogue which will not simply transform those external elements but also transform the Modern Prince itself as an active social relation.


Yes, the revolutionary political party is not an already-finished thing, with a “finished programme” and so on, which then just radiates out and “colonises” other groups. Trotsky argues in Lessons of October that even the revolutionary party best-prepared in advance will probably need to face internal crises and transform itself to succeed in revolutionary conditions. But surely the party is central. It is the organised body of activists who are systematically and collectively politically active in a continuous way, not just at high points; who, with a continuously-developed and sustained theoretical basis, most resist the “conceptions of the world mechanically imposed by the external environment”; who best represent a concentrated power of political initiative. As Gramsci put it: “The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organised and long-prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favourable (and it can be favourable only in so far as such a force exists, and is full of fighting spirit). Therefore the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed, and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact, and self-aware”. Or again: “The protagonist of the new Prince could… only [be] the political party”. (Emphasis added).

Again, the question is: what type of party? And further: how is this party formed?

Gramsci was well aware that, in the broader sense, there is nobody without a party, or nobody who is not in a certain way a “partisan”, even if only in a practical state, of certain choices, values and interests they share with others in similar social positions. Similarly, he recognised very clearly in the politics of his own time that the structured political party played a decisive role in the organisation of its class’s forces. Furthermore, he noted that there were important differences between the party organisation of different classes or social groups, differences that he argued needed to be analysed in terms of the social and economic relations that structured the social base of those parties.

However, when Gramsci attempts in prison to outline a theory of a new type of party, the “Modern Prince”, I think he was attempting to move beyond any conception of political organisation that was instrumentalist, or that could be subjected to instrumentalist deformations. It is therefore not a case, it seems to me, of stating that, regardless of complicating and intervening factors, the party remains “central”, in either the first or the last instance. This way of stating the problem presupposes precisely the element that Gramsci was attempting to problematise – namely, the process that constitutes and makes possible such a party, or if you like, “centre” of directly political coordination, organisation and leadership. Like Machiavelli, Gramsci recognised that the type of political formation that he wanted and that he thought would be necessary for a workers’ revolution was not pre-given in any of the models he had experienced himself; it would need to be actively constructed, and that meant thinking seriously about its constitution, that is, the process of constructing it and the ongoing “maintenance work” necessary to make it endure as an “organisation of struggle”.

By focusing on the Modern Prince as a dynamic social relation of democratic pedagogy, I think Gramsci was attempting to develop an active conception of the dynamism that would be necessary for the formation – and continuous re-formation, internal development and transformation – of a genuinely effective political party, as a representative political instance of much wider social relations. That is, he had an expansive conception of the types of social relations that should be viewed as making up the Modern Prince, in all its complexity. This was not to deny in any sense that at decisive moments, in relation to specific objectives and on specific terrains of the social formation, coordinated and concentrated action would be necessary to deal decisive blows against the bourgeois class project – Gramsci’s reflections on military metaphors and their significance for political struggle point to his clear sense of the significance of this (just as it did for figures throughout the history of early social democracy, from Engels and Kautsky to Lenin and Trotsky, for whom such open struggle between constituted political forces was a real and present possibility). It was to emphasise, however, that such an instance of coordination and organisation would only become strong enough to perform its role in the struggle if it developed an awareness of the dynamic social relations that made it possible, and with which it needed to work if it was to provide an expansive rather than limiting conception of political leadership. Rather than conceiving of the party as a “centre”, it might be better in this Gramscian perspective to think of such explicitly institutional-political coordinating and organising functions as the tip of the iceberg of the Modern Prince, the visible 10 % supported by the invisible 90% below the waterline.


What bearing does any of this have in a situation where there is class struggle but no “hegemonic apparatus” of the working class? There appears to be a sort of Catch-22 here. Gramsci seems to be saying that a Marxist world view cannot be developed without having a mass revolutionary working-class movement; but how can this mass revolutionary working-class movement develop without having at least some pioneer elements with some approximation of a Marxist world view?

Gramsci is operating in a period in which there are mass revolutionary parties of the working class already in existence, and indeed where there is an accepted social form called a working class with which and against which people identify. Our own times are very different. The very existence of mass political parties that could be characterised as “of the working class” has been placed in doubt, depending on how we understand the phrase “of the working class”, as a relation of possession, or of identification and so forth. Even more importantly, for many people, including people on the left, the notion of the working class itself has been radically placed in question.

Obviously we can and should have extended discussions about the definition of the working class. In my view, we can very easily demonstrate that the working class, defined as those who engage in wage-labour as the principal source of their access to the means necessary for their continuing existence, in a wage-labour/ capital relation, is now much larger than ever before in world history. It is expanding exponentially, to the point that in some so-called advanced capitalist countries the percentage of the population that could be defined as the working-class in the broadest terms approaches 70 or 80%, if not more.

The difficulty, of course, is that many of the members of this working class in no sense identify subjectively with the working class, and have various other identifications which they may see as more important. I would suggest that at this stage in history the workers’ movement in the broadest sense is confronted with the challenge of attempting to recompose notions of the working class and rethinking ways in which we can place the question of labour relations at the centre of social and political discussions.

Regardless of the other elements that exist in people’s lives, which are certainly not unimportant, one element that all members of the broadly-defined working class have in common is the daily empirical fact of being subjected to a wage-labour/ capital relation continuously. In other words, while we can be united by many things and often choose to unite with people for many different reasons, we are forced to share in common everyday the fact of being exploited by capital (clearly, “exploitation” should be understood here in the sense in which Marx uses it, not as a moral category – at least, not in the first instance – but as a scientific category to describe the appropriation of surplus-value from wage-labour by owners of capital). We need to build new institutions that will be able to respond to that fact and transform those relations.

What does it mean to try to build a hegemonic apparatus in the contemporary context? Against voices that declare the death of the working class, we need to insist that it is a possible project; but we also need to acknowledge, I think, that it is a project that will only be successful if it is able to acknowledge the very real difficulties and challenges it presently confronts. The attempt to construct a hegemonic apparatus of the workers’ movement, and the plurality of different hegemonic practices that will be necessary to compose it, is in many respects a process that still needs to occur within the contemporary working class or working classes, conceived in a broader sense. Years of defeats, disaggregation and transformation of social relations and practices have severely damaged if not destroyed some of the older traditions and institutions that were identified as “of the working class”, and helped to give a sense of the “unity in diversity” that the working class always was and is even more so today. We need to continue the struggle within the working class to build the institutions that can help to recompose a more composite social body, which will be capable of confronting the capitalist class in political terms; in the first and not the last instance, this includes political struggle itself, as an active form of aggregation, or drawing together of forces in struggle.

What does that mean concretely? I think it includes a wide series of cultural practices, of different ways of linking together practices that already exist with institutions of the working class. In the first place, this refers to institutions inside the trade-union movement and to different associations and committees, even including sporting associations, community groupings and so forth. All those remain important areas that need to be explored and built in order to find some way of linking everyday practices to questions that pose the question and perspective of labour as a central way we organise our lives together in society.

It also means assuming a political responsibility, of the positing of explicitly political elements. I think that occurs on two levels. One, in the current period, is the positing of questions of the theoretical perspectives that are necessary to recompose the workers’ movement. In my view, that involves a revitalisation of Marxism, and its recovery from the long series of deformations to which Stalinism subjected it. We need today a flourishing of a Marxist theoretical culture that seriously and concretely explores forms of thought that can help us to build the type of “culture” – in the broadest sense, as Gramsci or Raymond Williams would understand that word – that can sustain political struggles at all levels, both theoretical and practical. Another is the level of political organisation and intervention in ongoing forms of political resistance. We need to link together the theoretical cultures and the political, interventionist cultures, or in Gramsci’s terms, we need to find the relations of ongoing and reciprocal “translation” between them that will enable both to flourish. It is only through the linking of theory and what Marx referred to as “material force” that both of them will be transformed and begin to forge the necessary active conception of workers’ self-emancipation.


In hindsight, Lenin’s fairly fragmentary writings from late 1921 onwards show us a record of a heroic battle – considering how ill he was, and the very difficult circumstances – but also that he was very far from fully appreciating what was going on in the nascent Stalinist counter-revolution and having an answer to it. You referred to the struggle for literacy, but that was not an innovation of that period. The Red Army during the civil war probably spent more time teaching soldiers how to read than it did fighting. How far did Gramsci reflect further on the processes of Stalinisation which were already under way when he was in the Soviet Union in 1922-3?

Lenin’s last articles and reflections are indeed limited – necessarily so, given the difficult conditions in which they were composed. There is no need to overblow either their intrinsic importance or Gramsci’s reflections on them. The importance of emphasising the centrality of the “last Lenin’s” legacy for the Prison Notebooks, however, is to acknowledge the explicitly political dimensions of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony – something which has not always been done, particularly in some Eurocommunist and later Post-Marxist interpretations of it.

In that last period, Lenin was confronting the problem of the working class as a leading group inside the workers’ state. It was no longer simply a question of opposition, of rallying the forces to oppose Tsarism, but a problem “within” the new “non-State State”. What were the forms of leadership in which the working class needed to engage in order to be successful in its own project, which is the abolition of exploitation and making possible the removal of oppressive social relations?

There are elements in Lenin’s final writings – and just as crucially, his practice – that show an emphasis or a tendency, a direction or an orientation which it is necessary to take, but they are obviously only very rudimentary coordinates.

In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci wanted to take up those rudimentary coordinates and to elaborate them into a prospective mapping of the forms of proletarian political practice. It was precisely because he saw the various deceptive forms in which bourgeois hegemony had been established and consolidated in the long 19th century that he wanted to think through the new types of democratic practice that the working class needed to engage in to build its own project of a “politics of truth”.

From 1926 onwards, from the very latest, Gramsci was quite clear on the nature of what had emerged in the Soviet Union and the ongoing process of Stalinisation and bureaucratisation. He objected to it quite explicitly in political terms. In a famous letter of 14 October 1926 which Togliatti refused to deliver, he explicitly condemned the political inadequacy of the responses of the Russian leadership. He regarded the attempted bureaucratic manipulation and censorship of the minority position in the Russian party as a dishonest form of conducting political struggle, particularly inside the leadership of the only communist party that had successfully carried through a revolution and founded a workers’ state.

This perspective deepened in very substantive terms when he was in prison. That caused huge conflict inside the prison with other members of the Italian Communist Party and effectively led to his isolation inside the prison and difficult reverberations as news of his position and what he had been saying reached the outside. There is currently underway, in Italy and elsewhere, extensive research into the details of Gramsci’s relation with the Party, with the Soviet leadership and even inside his wife’s family, on the basis of newly available archival material. It is perhaps still too early to reach any definitive judgements on Gramsci’s position. Nevertheless, from the material that has already become available and the first studies, it seems quite clear that Gramsci’s “heterodoxy” was much greater than has been thought in the past. Furthermore, it seems clear that his dissent from the direction of the international communist movement, particularly in relation to the politics of the “Third Period”, was well known, and constituted a very complicated factor in his party, personal and even familial relations.

Moreover, from the evidence of the critical edition of the Prison Notebooks, at least, some things are already quite clear: a principled condemnation of all forms of bureaucratic manoeuvring as a political technique; an absolute opposition to the politics of the “Third Period” and its triumphalism (the line of “after them, us”, as a response to fascism); and a profound disagreement with the culture that had developed in the Communist movement, of top-down leadership. Gramsci’s emphasis became increasingly strong over the years. Inside the Modern Prince, he argues, disaggregation is necessary. Breakdown and conflict are necessary in order to build the Modern Prince. It is through what we should call explicitly factionalism, struggle, disagreement, open and organised disagreement, that the Modern Prince is able to build itself.

That is not because this open conflict of policies would then, on the model of a scientific experiment, be a way of testing different theses in order to find the one “true” one and then to eliminate false ones. Rather, it is because such disaggregation and conflict is the nature of modern social relations and of the different interests that subtend them. This approach became for Gramsci a way of drawing the dynamic conflictuality of modernity inside his proposed party-form itself, as a positive and productive dimension of proletarian organisation.

This distinction between Gramsci and the orthodoxy which became dominant not only in Russia but in the Communist movement as a whole shows that Gramsci, despite all his important disagreements with other members of the far left – with Trotsky and with the Left Opposition, and with Bordiga – nevertheless needs to be claimed as a member of the anti-Stalinist, Marxist tradition. His positions can be regarded as one of the principled perspectives that rejected the deformation of Marxism, united with those other currents – fittingly, given their common rejection of the silencing of comradely debate by the imposition of a bureaucratic orthodoxy from above – in their often quite significant substantive and analytical disagreements.


In the early 1930s, a whole “Right-Communist” current – Brandler, Thalheimer, Lovestone, and so on, people who had looked to Bukharin before 1928-9 – criticised the “Third Period” policies and Stalin’s bureaucratic methods, including inside the USSR, but without identifying the Stalinist bureaucracy as a socially-distinct ruling caste, class, or incipient class, as the left oppositionists did. Do you think that Gramsci developed a sharper criticism of Stalinism than the “Right Communists” did?

I think it would be exaggerating to claim that Gramsci had a developed theory of the internal class composition of the Stalinist USSR, such as we can find in the Left Opposition or other far left currents such as Bordiga or the council communists. He did not. His disagreement with Stalinism emerged from concrete disagreements about particular problems of political strategy, both in the Italian party and in the international movement, which he saw as deleterious for the building of the mass forces he correctly regarded as necessary for any chance to defeat fascism. He disagreed openly with the use of bureaucratic manoeuvres to silence opposition inside the Russian party. His rejection of the perspective of the third period was based upon an assessment of its likely disastrous effects on the international working class movement, dividing it and weakening it. Insofar as Gramsci developed a principled political critique of Stalinism as a strategic international perspective and bureaucratic deformation inside the Russian process, there are points of affinity with many currents of the far left critique of the degeneration of the Bolshevik revolution into Stalinist dictatorship – which is not to say that they were the same or that all were equally valid on all points. From our perspective today, it is important to note that Gramsci’s political principles, and the analyses that followed from them, were fundamentally incompatible with a regime that sought to weaken proletarian democracy, on all levels.

Did Gramsci ever comment on the question of “socialism in one country”?

Gramsci commented obliquely on that theme at a number of points in the Prison Notebooks. His insistence was always that the national and the international remain intertwined. Gramsci critically took up analyses of imperialism, and was concerned to a much greater extent than I think is acknowledged in many English-language commentaries with the dynamics of capitalist accumulation on an international scale.The notion that “socialism in one country” could be a goal for the socialist movement, or even a possibility, must, I think, be acknowledged as incompatible with Gramsci’s analysis of the necessary international dimensions of the capitalist mode of production, and thus the necessity for any attempts to negate it and replace it with socialism also to be international. In this sense, Gramsci’s perspective remained close to the early years of the Third International, when the “Russian question” was always analysed in relation to the international situation and the future of the Soviets was seen as fundamentally tied to the future of the international revolutionary movement.

In writings of the mid-1920s, like the Lyons Theses of January 1926, Gramsci wrote about seeking an economy “better fitted to the structure and resources of the country” for Italy…

First, the Lyons Theses were at a relatively earlier stage in Gramsci’s development. I don’t think there is any political opposition between Gramsci before prison, and Gramsci in prison, but I do think it is important to draw distinctions between the different periods. There is no “totalised” picture that is available from any one citation of Gramsci. It is necessary to put together all the perspectives and the general theory that is used to analyse them, paying close attention to the development of Gramsci’s thought within and across the different political conjunctures.

Second, in relation to the “Bolshevisation” of the Italian party in 1924-5 and related political perspectives from this period, Gramsci made what I regard as errors, and what I think he came to regard as errors too, albeit ones that occurred in very difficult circumstances. We should also note that not all the Lyons Theses were written by Gramsci. A full translation of all the theses into English with scholarly apparatus is currently underway. Clearly, an adequate comprehension of their significance, both in terms of Gramsci’s development and that of the Italian Communist Party, can only be gained if we analyse them in the political context of their time and place. Finally, the strategic perspective of Gramsci’s contribution to the Lyons Theses should be noted: in many respects, they were an attempt to give a concrete response to Lenin’s demand for western communists to devise revolutionary strategies and programmes based upon an accurate investigation of the class composition, balance of forces and real potentials for revolutionary transformation in their own societies. As Gramsci always acknowledged, any hegemonic project would need to be based upon a capacity to address fundamental problems of economic organisation, and to propose solutions to the problems that the bourgeoisie was structurally incapable of addressing.


Italy and Russia in the early years of the 20th century are generally seen as Italy being part of “the West”, and Russia of “the East”. But in overall industrialisation they were not very far apart. In terms of the productivity of agriculture they were not very far apart.

The big specific difference was that Italy had a much larger urban proportion of the population. It had a much larger urban non-proletarian population. One of Trotsky’s chief arguments in Results and Prospects had been that Russia was exceptional in the smallness of the urban petty-bourgeoisie.

Gramsci made implicit references to that difference of class structure between Italy and Russia, scattered through his writings, but I know of nowhere where he poses it squarely and tries to tease through the differences.

In my book I say that there has been too much emphasis placed on a few words cruelly ripped from their context in which Gramsci counterposes East and West. Gramsci’s words are often not interpreted in terms of the debates of his time, where differences between “East” and “West” were also a major concern for other Marxists, above all Trotsky and Lenin.

The distinction between “East” and “West” was not peculiar to Gramsci, or even to Gramsci, Trotsky, and Lenin. It is an old theme that goes back a long way in Western political thought, as far back as the ancient Greeks and distinctions in Greek political thought between the (largely) Eastern “barbarians” and the civilised Greeks. The theme traverses the entire history of Western political thought and was also very present in the discussions of early Social Democracy. Kautsky’s profound objections to the Russian Revolution were due, in part, to his different understanding of historical development, but also, in part to his conviction that there were “immature” political forms present in Russia, which made a successful socialist transition impossible.

Gramsci complexified this picture entirely, and was interested in conceiving the ways in which there are differences between social formations, but which are united in one international system.

Yes, Italy was much closer to Russia in decisive respects than it was to the United States or to England. In both Russia and Italy you had a relatively highly politicised working class in urban centres being a minority in social formations dominated by a massive peasantry. That is one reason why the Russian discussions on hegemony resonated with Gramsci so strongly, because he could see the links with his own situation.

And then even if we move to the most “Western” of all “Western” social formations, the United States, in Gramsci’s analysis you see some very “Eastern” features. In the “East”, Gramsci wrote, the political superstructures were less developed. That comment has often been taken out of context. I think Gramsci’s analysis was that it had been easier, because of the relative lack of mediating institutions, to topple the Tsarist state, but the problem of construction after the revolution was much more difficult than it might have been in the western countries. That point was not one original to Gramsci; it was one he took quite directly from Lenin and Trotsky and the early debates of the Third International.

When Gramsci analyses the United States, he sees, with the emergence of “Fordism”, something very similar to the pattern in Russia – a lack of mediating institutions that had been organically unified into a hegemonic apparatus. Even in the most “Western” of all “Western” social formations, you had elements that would seem not to correspond to the model of the sophisticated, elaborate, politicised civil society supposedly characteristic of the “West”.

One of Gramsci’s most important analytical developments in the Prison Notebooks was precisely to problematise the East-West dichotomy, and instead to concentrate much more strongly on the social relations inside different state forms.


You distinguish three senses, each more general than the previous one, in which Gramsci uses the term “passive revolution”…

Gramsci’s analyses in the Prison Notebooks were conducted in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and his references related to “the epoch of imperialism” in the sense of the period through from the late 19th century through to his own times…

And up to the period after World War Two, when it became clear that the old colonial empires had been mortally wounded in that war…?

The general logic of Gramsci’s narrative perhaps could be extended that far, but Gramsci’s own reflections terminate before that date, for obvious reasons.

There are some passages in which you describe “passive revolution” as “permanent structural adjustment avant la lettre”, i.e. as relevant to recent times, and others where you protest against “a dominant interpretation that extends passive revolution to the contemporary world”.

I use the term “permanent structural adjustment avant la lettre” simply as a rhetorical device to draw the reader’s attention to some similarities and parallels – but also differences – with our own times. It is important to acknowledge the context in which Gramsci developed the concept of passive revolution.

He took it from Vincenzo Cuoco, who essayed the concept in the context of a discussion of the Neapolitan revolution. Gramsci used it first to analyse the Risorgimento, and then extended it in different ways and at different dates to consider states like Italy and Germany in comparison to France as a type of model of modern state formation.

Thirdly, he extended it out to cover an entire period of historical development, such that “passive revolution” might be read as coinciding with the epoch of imperialism, if not predating it.

Why did he do that? We need to remember that he developed these reflections in the 1930s. They were used as a counterpoint to the triumphalism of the Stalinist Third Period and its type of teleology, which saw a continuous accumulation of the “progress” of the revolutionary movement. In some ways Gramsci was close to Walter Benjamin’s critique of the implicit idealism of German Social Democracy’s concept of historical progress, from which Stalinism was not, in the last analysis, as distant as it claimed with the thesis of “social fascism”.

Gramsci was looking for a concept that could help him to explain the way in which things continued to “go on as they were”, to use Benjamin’s terms. Indeed, he came to see such stabilisation or at least maintenance of the established order despite deep conflicts and contradictions at social and political levels as the real crisis to which the revolutionary movement needed to respond. He was trying to develop a concept that would help him understand where he was, in the 1930s, and which would be a powerful enough narrative – analytically, historically and politically – to be able to be set against the dominant Stalinist one. While doing so, he was always very careful continually to refer to Marx’s critique of political economy as his fundamental touchstone, seeking to measure the political significance of this new category with Marx’s reflections on the nature and specificity of a mode of production, its specific social relations, the interaction of forces of production and so forth.

I wouldn’t deny that the concept of passive revolution can have a more general analytical validity, and could indeed even be used to analyse processes up to the present day. Some contemporary scholars have been doing just that, with some interesting perspectives produced by such an optic, such as in the work of Adam Morton. But I think there are other concepts in Gramsci that demand equal attention for describing the present, as potentially more fruitful for our own situation.

For example, I think neo-liberalism might be more usefully described with the Gramscian category of a counter-reform. This has been emphasised by the Brazilian Gramscian Coutinho. With the concept of counter-reform, Gramsci is much more interested in juridical processes and the destruction of political forms solidified in the state which different classes had been able to access and use for their own ends. In neo-liberalism, the state has been used to dismantle itself, in a certain sense, at least at its social level, by different impositions which have made forms of class organisation even more difficult for the labouring and subaltern classes.

Using the concept of passive revolution today, I think, involves a gambit. We then have to develop an analysis that connects Gramsci’s analysis through to our own, through continuities or transformations in the mode of production and in the political forces.

In all Gramsci’s discussions of passive revolution, he was concerned with the presence of at least two elements, which set it apart from similar concepts in the Marxist tradition that have been used to characterise periods and forms of reaction or defeat of popular forces. Passive revolution is not simply Bonapartism. It is not simply revolution from above. It is not simply counter-revolution. It is a more complex category. In one sense, it is still a “revolutionary” process, or an overthrowing of the old and institution of new social forms. In a passive revolution, concrete gains are made in productivity or efficiency, political institutions are “modernised”, and so forth. But it involves a pacifying element, whereby such “modernisation” is accompanied not, as in instances such as the French Revolution, with the becoming active politically of large masses of the working classes, but on the contrary, with their deliberate and structural pacification by political means. Gramsci described this process as a molecular transformation, as a decapitation of mediating instances, the absorption of elements of the leadership of the popular classes into the state apparatus or into the hegemonic apparatus of the bourgeoisie. The masses are still indeed called to participate in a process of modernisation, but in a passive form, without being able to develop political forms such as had occurred in “non-passive revolutions”, above all, the French. They are not allowed to make the transition from the economic-corporative to the political moment which would be the construction of their own hegemonic apparatus.

If we want to extend the Gramscian concept of “passive revolution” in its specificity and complexity to the contemporary situation, we first need to determine if both of these elements are present in it: both “revolution”, of a type, and its passive deformation. In the neo-liberal programme of the last 30-35 years we can see the denial of political forms to the subaltern classes and the decapitation, co-option, subsumption of their representatives.

But as to the possibility of this process producing genuine qualitative and quantitative progress, in the form of some type of progress that could be reconciled with a narrative of modernisation, I think we have to be more sceptical. The neo-liberal programme has led to regression in many countries, most notably in some of the supposedly advanced capitalist states. It has led to a state in which there has been, not a “second modernity”, as some social theorists suppose, but processes of de-modernisation, of the destruction of social forms, of a continual destruction, if not of productivity itself, at least of its possibility of social utilisation and distribution.

In sum, the notion of passive revolution can help to add new dimensions to an analysis of new forms of imperialism, but it needs to be used critically and with an attention to its historical embeddedness. As I have suggested, I think it may turn out, upon further reflection, that some of Gramsci’s other categories have a greater critical purchase on the present.

A further point that I think is worth emphasising, against some interpretations of the notion of passive revolution, is that Gramsci was not Weber. Passive revolution does not denote some inevitable process of rationalisation which terminates in an iron cage. Gramsci was much more open and alert to the possibilities of struggle within passive revolution. It was precisely for this reason that he set out to develop the concept, against the fatalism of the third period perspective, which could legitimately be described as a philosophy of history with a Stalinist face.

Gramsci wrote at an advanced stage of his research and development of this concept that we need to link the concept of passive revolution quite directly with perspectives from Marx regarding the nature of the mode of production and the capacity of social formations for immanent transformation; but that we also need to purge Marx’s perspectives of any trace of fatalism, which he admitted could be found in some prominent interpretations of Marx and possibly in Marx’s ambiguities themselves. Gramsci always insisted that nothing is inevitable in these historical processes. They always depend on a political intervention, and are open to political transformation.


Does Gramsci overstate the democratic and class character of philosophy when he writes of the fusion of philosophy with politics? He seems to posit a very close relation between Marxist philosophy, as he sees it, and a mass revolutionary working-class movement. That takes us back to a Catch-22: no Marxist philosophy without a mass revolutionary working-class movement, and no revolutionary mass working-class movement without Marxist philosophy. Yet many of the texts from Marx which Gramsci based himself on were written in the absence of any mass revolutionary working-class movement.

The notion of the “philosophy of praxis” in Gramsci has often been taken to be simply a euphemism for Marxism. The contention in my book, following a number of other Gramscian scholars, is that Gramsci used this term to describe a new philosophical position which represents his intervention into debates following the Russian Revolution about the nature of Marxism as both a philosophy and broader conception of the world. Gramsci’s “philosophy of praxis” is therefore not simply equivalent with Marxism (which of course is never singular, but has always been defined in different ways by different political currents and perspectives); rather, it represents Gramsci’s particular version of Marxism, or more precisely, his proposal for the further development of the Marxist tradition that he inherited. Furthermore, it was not only a proposal regarding what a Marxist philosophy could be, but also included a critical perspective on the political nature of philosophy as such, even in its seemingly least “political” forms.

In his analysis of previous philosophy, Gramsci identified various contradictions at work in them, whether they were idealist or materialist. He came to a position that argued that in so far as they involved various forms of linguistic practice, that is, complex forms of social relations, philosophical statements were already political instances – “political” here meaning the transformative instance of social relations and practices. Already, in a sense, philosophical statements serve to organise human social relations – linguistic and conceptual relations that form an integral part of all other social relations, overdetermining them and overdetermined by them in their turn.

Gramsci argued that previous philosophies, even those that might at first sight seem to be at a far remove from explicitly political themes and focused instead on classically “speculative” notions, had been engaged in highly mediated but nevertheless political forms of organisation, of the shaping, crafting, and transformation of conceptions of the world.

He therefore wanted to investigate what could be a philosophical form that would be adequate to the goals and practices of a democratic workers’ movement. He came to the view that it is only by acknowledging the always-already-practical nature of philosophy that it is possible not only to criticise previous forms of philosophy (including, crucially, the criticism of previous conceptions of Marxist philosophy), but also to go further and attempt to develop a new form of philosophical practice that would arguably be more genuinely philosophical than the contending and rival positions, if we are to understand philosophy as always a practice, as a “love of wisdom”, in the classic sense.

The claim would be not to be the “wise man” (the sophos of presocratic philosophy), but simply to be a lover of wisdom; that is, not the claim to already possess the truth in some form, but to be searching for it. The Western philosophical tradition in fact begins precisely from such a “distance taken”, from the claim to possess truth already in the form of an achieved wisdom, to the claim that we are merely seeking truth, or trying to become wise. For Gramsci, that conception of the search for wisdom, and of being open to the continual corrections of history, became a way of fusing history and philosophy. Philosophy became a historical practice. It also became political, insofar as philosophy, as one of the most developed forms of conceptual-linguistic organisation, can be seen as one of the forms in which a conception of the world is created and crafted – a political relation of leadership.

Gramsci wanted to pose the question of the interaction between politics, in this much broader sense, and philosophy in the workers’ movement. Ultimately, Gramsci came to the position that the politician was a philosopher, and the philosopher was a politician, at various degrees of mediation. The philosopher was already engaged in the political practice of comprehending the transformation of social relations, intervening in those transformations by means of organising and socialising, via linguistic and conceptual practice, their potential theoretical significance. The politician was also engaged in a comprehension, or a grasping, of philosophical problems. Why? Because philosophy, according to this perspective, could not be defined in its totality as simply concepts and ideas, but was always constituted as a shared, social conception of the world that actively worked to organise it, a particular mode of coherent organisation.

In this perspective Gramsci’s reference once again was to his great “master” – in a classical sense, the person from whom he learned, and whose teaching enabled him to speak for himself – that is, Lenin. Gramsci argues quite specifically that in elaborating a hegemonic apparatus of the working class, equipping the Russian working class with the institutions and the perspectives that would be necessary for self-government, Lenin accomplished not only a political act but also a philosophical event of great importance.

“The theoretical-practical principle of hegemony has also epistemological significance, and it is here that Ilyich [Lenin]’s greatest theoretical contribution to the philosophy of praxis should be sought. In these terms one could say that Ilyich advanced philosophy as philosophy in so far as he advanced political doctrine and practice. The realisation of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge: it is a fact of knowledge, a philosophical fact…”

Reforming the institutions in which we live socially also reforms our conceptions of the world. It changes the foundation of philosophy, providing the possibility for a new conception of the world and therefore for the development of new forms of philosophy.

In order to specify the nature of this type of philosophical practice, Gramsci developed the figure of the “democratic philosopher”. He mentions this concept only once in the Prison Notebooks, but in many respects to can be taken as his proposal for a new type of intellectual and new type of philosopher, as an integral element of a broader political movement: “a new type of philosopher, whom we could call a “democratic philosopher” in the sense that he is a philosopher convinced that his personality is not limited to himself as a physical individual but is an active social relationship of modification of the cultural environment”.

In that figure there was, I think, a conception of a new form of philosopher that would be adequate to democratic political forms. The previous, aristocratic, conception of the philosopher as the speculative metaphysician standing above society – or, as Nietzsche claimed, thinking thousands of miles above others – that conception was fundamentally negated by Gramsci. He was conceiving of the way in which, following Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach, the “educator” was also “educated”. That is, philosophers – whether “professional” philosophers or “everyday” philosophers, remembering that for Gramsci we are all philosophers in some sense, in so far as we try to think coherently about the world and our place in it – were already necessarily involved in different social relations that had formed them and that provided not only the basic linguistic conceptuality they used in order to elaborate their thoughts, at different levels of coherence, but also all the problems they considered in their philosophical practice. The question then was whether someone could acknowledge the way in which they were continually interpellated, continually called into different relations and forced to respond to them in the form of a dialogue. The “democratic philosopher”, for Gramsci, became the philosopher who was mature enough to acknowledge the foundation of their thought in the common everyday practices of the people, a philosopher who was open to the capacity for transformation of those instances, and sought himself or herself to contribute to their transformation through his or her intervention in linguistic, conceptual, or political forms.

Ultimately, Gramsci’s figure of the “democratic philosopher” is not simply the philosopher in the traditional sense at all, but comes to be equated with, in Machiavelli’s terms, the active citizen, engaged in acts of virtuous self-governance. We could say that, in Marxist terms, the democratic philosopher is an example of the type of everyday search for wisdom that is – and needs to become even more – an essential element of the ongoing self-emancipation of the working class and its struggle to enlarge the field of active democratic participation in the organisation of society.

Democracy wins, federation loses-Farahnaz Ispahani

Posted by admin On May - 13 - 2013 Comments Off on Democracy wins, federation loses-Farahnaz Ispahani


CHALLENGES AHEAD: Nawaz Sharif is not the only one facing challenges.
While Nawaz Sharif has won the election decisively, he faces the challenge of reaching out beyond his main base in Punjab to the rest of Pakistan
Pakistan achieved a historic landmark with the completion of its five-year term by the civilian coalition government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the successful completion of elections resulting in the clear victory for Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). The election results, surprising for many, point to the challenges ahead for the country.

Although the PML won enough seats to be able to form the government without having to bargain too much with too many factions, its success comes entirely through the support of one ethnic group — the Punjabis. Every Pakistani province appears to have chosen a different party to represent it. The overall high turnout nationwide masks the harsh reality that very few people voted in Balochistan, where alienation from the centre has been growing.


There is no doubt that people voted out the incumbents amid questions about their performance. But the virtual wiping out of the PPP in Punjab means that each Pakistani political party now reflects the dominant sentiment of a particular ethnic group. The PPP was the only party that had representation from all four provinces of Pakistan in the outgoing Parliament.

The election result may be a step forward for Pakistani democracy. It is a step backward for the Pakistani federation. Given the history of complaints about Punjabi domination, Nawaz Sharif will have to reach out to the leaders of other provinces. Authoritarian rule has undermined national unity in the past because of Punjab’s overwhelming supremacy in the armed forces, judiciary and civil services. Democracy should not breed similar resentment among smaller ethnic groups through virtual exclusion from power at the centre.

In addition to bringing the provinces other than Punjab on board, Sharif’s other major headache would be to evolve a functioning relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment. Although he rose to prominence as General Zia-ul Haq’s protégé, Sharif clashed with General Pervez Musharraf over civilian control of the military. He might be tempted to settle that issue once and for all, partly because of the sentiment generated by his overthrow and imprisonment by Musharraf.

Changing the civil-military balance in favour of the civilians would be a good thing. But if it is done without forethought and caution, it could end up risking the democratic gains of the last several years. The PML-N’s view of Pakistani national identity being rooted in Islam and the two-nation theory does not differ much from that of the Pakistani establishment. His real difference with the establishment is over his belief that he, as the elected leader, and not the military must run the country.

Foreign policy

Sharif has publicly stated his intention to pick up the threads of the peace process he initiated with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. That process was undermined by the Kargil war, which Sharif now says was initiated by Musharraf without his authority. There can be no assurance that the establishment will let Sharif move forward over changing Pakistan’s posture towards Afghanistan and India, something it did not allow the PPP-led coalition to pursue. Moreover, having been elected with the support of hardline conservative Punjabis, how far can Sharif go against the wishes of his base?

During the election campaign, Sharif said little about Afghanistan. In his previous two terms he maintained close ties with the United States but did nothing against the jihadi groups. It was under Sharif’s rule that Pakistan officially recognised the Taliban regime and established diplomatic relations. This time, he has spoken of good relations with the West but his voters are overwhelmingly anti-American. The best he might be able to do on foreign policy would be to say the right things publicly without making tough policy decisions.

The Punjab electorate, in particular, and some parts of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa were clearly swayed by a hyper-nationalist tide, with tinges of Islamist grandiloquence. Sharif’s PML-N and Imran Khan’s PTI used similar hyper-nationalist, anti-American language about Pakistan no longer asking the West for aid. Both parties courted Islamist extremists to bolster their respective vote banks. It might be difficult for them to get off that tiger any time soon.

The National Assembly seat break-up is skewed in favour of one province, the largest province of Punjab. Punjab sends 148 general and 35 women’s seats or a total of 183 out of 342 seats which is more than half the seats in the lower house of Parliament. With deep ethnic, linguistic and economic diversity among the provinces, with trust between the provinces being at an all-time low and with the challenge of terrorism facing the country, there is a need for Mr Sharif to show statesmanship and to appeal beyond his urban Punjabi base.

Other players

Sharif is not the only one facing challenges. The PPP has suffered a national setback but has held onto its base in Sindh. It is now time for the party to look inwards and understand that the country has changed. It is growing more urban and Sindh is also doing so. The party is down but not out. It will have to reinvigorate itself by asserting its liberal, social democratic roots. Like the Congress in India, it can continue to seek unity in leadership from the family of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto. But it has to be a party that is not dismissed as a family enterprise.

As for Imran Khan, he achieved a breakthrough by mobilising disenchanted, apolitical youth. But if he seeks to remain relevant he must realise that there is more to politics than slogans and catch-all phrases. Railing against corrupt and patronage-based politicians is one thing, offering a viable democratic alternative is quite another.

(Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament and media adviser of the co-chairman of the PPP, President Asif Ali Zardari.)


Gramsci’s Leninism- Chris Walsh

Posted by admin On May - 12 - 2013 Comments Off on Gramsci’s Leninism- Chris Walsh


Gramsci’s Leninism- Chris Walsh
Chris Walsh explores Antonio Gramsci as a Leninist, the originality of his thinking and the relevance of Gramsci today
The legacy of Antonio Gramsci is one of the most fiercely contested in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci’s lineage is claimed by myriad schools of thought for innumerable theoretical purposes, both within and out with Marxism. There is scarcely a social science that hasn’t incorporated Gramsci’s key concepts into its literature: often presenting the Italian as an ‘acceptable’ Marxist and almost never confronting the possibility that he was a thinker and activist of the same political ilk as Lenin. In the history of Western Marxism, perhaps the major debate of the last fifty years has been around the question of whether Gramsci’s politics were a continuation of, or a break from, the Leninist tradition.

The major task of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks was to begin to articulate a revolutionary strategy for socialists operating in the advanced capitalist West where the conditions were fundamentally different from those in absolutist Russia. To engage in such a project is enough, for some, to draw a distinction between Gramsci’s politics and Lenin’s. However, this is a shallow conclusion to reach; since in the early 1920s, no one was more acutely aware as Lenin that a different revolutionary strategy would be necessary for the West.

In the 1970s, a new wave of theory which relied heavily on a (mis)reading of Gramsci began to emerge from within the Communist Parties of Europe. This loose variety of perspectives became known collectively as Eurocommunism: centred on the idea that Gramsci’s concept of ‘War of Position’ sanctioned a reformist road to socialism; the Communist Parties that adhered to this new perspective began to see electoral work as their political priority and quickly began to discount much of the politics of their Leninist heritage.

In Britain, Eurocommunism was championed by the Marxism Today journal, headed up by writers like Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall. Such figures had good reason to detach Gramsci from the Leninist tradition: they wanted to drive a theoretical wedge between themselves and the Stalinist USSR’s ‘cult of Lenin’; they were deeply pessimistic from decades of defeats for the hard-left and wanted to articulate a new socialist strategy which jettisoned the unmarketable old verities of their failed Marxism-Leninism, like ‘The Dictatorship of The Proletariat’. Gramsci, they thought, was their ticket to such drastic revision and they purposefully tried to distance his thought from that of Lenin. These were, of course, politically motivated men. Their own conclusions were neither impartial nor strictly scholarly but dictated by their own specific agenda of radical left-wing reorientation and renewal, in a time of deep crisis for the left.

It is important here to clarify some, often ignored but crucial, points: Firstly, the concept which has become synonymous with Gramscian thought, ‘hegemony’, was not an original concept of Gramsci’s, but one that he learned from Lenin and was widely used by leading theorists of both the Second and Third International. Gramsci’s use of the term is not a departure from, nor contradictory to, the Russian’s usage but is in fact a continuation and development of the same concept. Secondly, although it has been popular for decades to characterise Gramsci’s hegemony as an alternative strategy to the increasingly unfashionable concept of The Dictatorship of The Proletariat, Gramsci never intended it thus; in fact the two concepts were, in the Italian’s mind, very much complementary. In fact, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks was an attempt to carry on Lenin’s legacy after his death.

Lenin and the West

As already mentioned, Lenin knew all too well that a different revolutionary strategy was required for the West. In 1921 he specifically outlined to the Russian communists the necessity of the theorisation of a strategy for Western workers which was suitable to their own conditions. He specifically regrets that the program set out at the Third Congress was scarcely comprehensible to the non-Russian mind:

“At the Third Congress, in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it 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…Second, even 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. And third, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out.” (Lenin; ‘Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution: Report to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International’; Lenin’s Final Fight: 1922-23; p111)

The strength of the resolution was in its detail, specificity and ability to focus on the minutiae of organisational questions. Its weakness was that the specifics of the Russian social and economic conditions were exceptional and thus completely alien to the Western worker. Worse still is the fact that even after dedicated study of the Russian conditions leading to an understanding of the revolutionary organisation and practice of the Russian communists, this knowledge could become a fetter to the Western revolutionary if taken dogmatically since their own road to workers revolution would be so radically different to that of the Bolsheviks. This led Lenin to lament that “We have not learned how to present our Russian experience to foreigners.” In order to rectify the oversights from the previous congress, he stressed to his compatriots that, “We Russians must also find ways and means of explaining the principles of this resolution to the foreigners. Unless we do that, it will be absolutely impossible for them to carry it out.”

The key task for the Communist International at this point was to ‘translate’ the Russian experience into the many vernaculars of the European workers. No two states have identical form or conditions, and certainly the Russian situation was particularly far removed from those of the more advanced capitalisms in Europe.

War of Manouvere & War of Position

One of Gramsci’s greatest contributions to revolutionary Marxism was his formulation of the dual strategies of War of Manouvere and War of Position. The former, as carried out by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917, was conceived as an appropriate strategy for socialists operating within societies where capitalism was still underdeveloped. It involved an insurrectionary advance upon the state which is only possible when the ruling class within society maintain their superiority to the subaltern classes by sheer force, with little or no acceptance of their superiority from the masses. In such a situation, the subordinate classes do not consent to the class leadership of the bourgeoisie but are forced into acquiescence by the vast apparatuses of state violence, “special bodies of armed men, prisons, etc.” as Lenin outlined in The State and Revolution.

The War of Position, on the other hand, is a more patient and protracted strategy. This involves not just an attack upon the bastions of state power, but a lengthy period building up to this moment in which class alliances are forged and ideological leadership amongst the subaltern classes is strived for. Gramsci explains the differing conditions that demand each respective strategy:

“In the East, the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The state was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements. Needless to say, the configuration of the state varied from state to state, which is precisely why an accurate reconnaissance on a national scale was needed.” (Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume III; trans. Buttigieg; p169)

In this particular passage Gramsci identifies the state as being the fortress surrounding civil society. At other times he presents the converse, that civil society protects the state. There is no ultimate truth regarding the formulation of advanced capitalist states since “the configuration of the state varied from state to state”. The key point to note is that in the West there was a far more mature relationship between the state and civil society. The state in the advanced capitalist West ensures the continuation of the domination of the capitalist class through a far more complex method of governance than the brute coercion of the underdeveloped Eastern state. There is a far more effective deployment of a combination of both coercion and consent. The more advanced that the capitalist state becomes, it utilises less and less force and becomes increasingly reliant on gaining consent from the masses to maintain the hierarchical status quo.

It is important to note at this point that the population is by no means duped into such an arrangement. The ideology of the ruling class purposefully appeals to certain needs, desires or fears that are actually held by the subaltern classes. These appeals are made upon different issues at different historical points and are obviously dictated by the specific conditions in any given society. They can be anything from: the restoration of law and order/domestic security; national security; concerns around the size of the state apparatus; anger at ‘benefits culture’, appeals to fairness. All of these were deployed in Margaret Thatcher’s political project. All of these fears were stoked by Thatcher and her allies, predominantly through the role of the media in endorsing them wholeheartedly and giving little or no platform to any voice of dissent.

When the ruling class ideology becomes so widely accepted that the oppressed classes are willing to subscribe to it; when alternatives cannot be found, or if they exist but can’t gain any traction; this is when the ruling ideology becomes, what Gramsci called, ‘common sense’. This ideological shift in society becomes so stable that even the following political administrations seemingly have to subscribe to it. This is when a political project becomes truly hegemonic. This is what was achieved by the radical project of Thatcherism, so that the next Labour government after Thatcher’s reign completely embraced and continued her neo-liberal project.

The Integral State

In the traditional Marxist duality of state and civil society; the ideological apparatuses such as the media, schools, universities, the family etc. are considered to be institutions of civil society. Gramsci recognized that in advanced capitalist society, such an assignment is not completely accurate. Civil society and the state become so inextricably linked that both must be tackled concurrently. If we consider the influence that powerful figures in society can have upon the state and vice versa: whether it be wealthy donors to political parties having a say in policy or decision making; or media tycoons who have such a vast influence upon the population that they play a decisive role in who is elected to office; it is clear that the power in society does not simply lie within the state proper.

This is why Gramsci formulated the concept of the ‘integral state’. In this formulation, the state and civil society are not two distinct entities but two component parts of the same organism. There is a dialectical relationship between the two parts so that the capacities of the state to act are always dependant upon the balance of class and social forces, and the role of actors, within civil society.

It is a common misinterpretation of Gramsci that the War of Position is fought within civil society, and once hegemony is ensured, the state lies unprotected for the workers to lay hold of. When we consider the concept of the ‘integral state’ it becomes obvious that this is incorrect. The integral state is everything; one unitary ‘state-form’ that encompasses both civil and political society. The state proper and civil society prop each other up in a symbiotic fashion. A working class revolutionary movement must attack both at once. The strategy of the united front must be in constant deployment. The oppressed must be organised and drawn into constant and increasing struggle with the state and the ruling class. This must be given organisational form in the shape of new workers institutions and revolutionaries must always strive to ensconce politics into them, continually raising the consciousness and organisation of struggle in a dialectical interaction.

Civil Hegemony = War of Position = United front

We must understand that Gramsci’s conception of hegemony cannot be comprehended in isolation from his other major prison researches. We are offered the equation: ‘Civil Hegemony = War of Position = United Front.’ The United Front is the strategy implemented in order to unite the subordinate classes in conflict with the state; Civil hegemony (the starting point of, and always progressing towards, political hegemony) is the leadership of the oppressed classes on the terrain of civil society; and War of Position is the steady, incremental advance of the proletarian-led alliance of the oppressed to subordinate the dominant hegemony, and when possible, manouvere for control of the apparatuses of the state. Each component part of this formulation is essential to the unity of the strategic whole. If any one is discounted, the strategy is rendered unintelligible and certainly un-workable. Leadership (hegemony) can only be established within civil society once the various oppressed classes have forged some form of allegiance (through the United Front) with the proletarian vanguard that will lead the struggle against the ruling class in the fields of both civil and political society. I will argue, and seek to demonstrate through a close textual analysis, that each component part of the equation owes a great deal to the influence of Lenin.

Lenin’s Hegemony (Leadership)

As we have already noted, Gramsci adopted his concept of hegemony from Lenin. We should also remember at this point that hegemony for Gramsci, in any given pre-revolutionary period, simply means leadership of the subaltern classes, brought together in struggle by the United Front. Although Lenin doesn’t often use the word hegemony, this has often mistakenly been interpreted as an absence or irrelevance of the concept from his discourse. As Buci-Glucksmann puts it:

“The majority of commentators, anxious to stress the decisive contribution made by Gramsci, or more subtly, to oppose Gramsci to Lenin, end up by underestimating the place of hegemony in Lenin’s work and remaining almost completely silent on the Third International.” (Buci-Glucksmann, Christine; Gramsci and The State; p174)

However, it is not difficult to find examples of the concept in his writings from long before 1917. Let us consider the following passages from Two Tactics of Social Democracy, written in 1905:

“All the usual, regular and current work of all organizations and groups of our Party, the work of propaganda, agitation and organisation, is directed towards strengthening and expanding the ties with the masses.” (Lenin; Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in The Democratic Revolution, Lenin: Selected Works; p51)

“In a word, to avoid finding itself with its hands tied in the struggle against the inconsistent bourgeois democracy the proletariat must be class-conscious and strong enough to rouse the peasantry to revolutionary consciousness, guide its assault, and thereby independently pursue the line of consistent proletarian democratism.” (Lenin; Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in The Democratic Revolution, Lenin: Selected Works; p85)

As early as 1905 Lenin recognises that class alliances must be made with the other subaltern classes in order to engage in effective revolutionary struggle. This is especially true in countries where the proletariat is not quantitatively the largest class. As well as forging this alliance of the oppressed, the proletariat must establish the trust and loyalty of the other component classes and lead and dictate the form of their revolutionary activities (just as in Gramsci’s formulations). At this conjuncture, Lenin identifies the united front as a tactic, suitable to the specific period, rather than a strategy. One could easily argue that it was suitable for Russia in 1905 but quite ill-fitting to the conditions in which Gramsci operated in Italy. However, the United Front eventually establishes a more permanent role in Lenin’s thought. It wasn’t until much later, specifically at the beginning of the Third International that the united front was recognized as a strategy for the age rather than merely a specific manouvere. I will return to, and address, this point later when dealing with the theory and practice of the ‘last Lenin’ and its significance to Gramsci.

Lenin’s overall strategy for proletarian revolution was evidently vindicated in October 1917. After the October Revolution, the concept of hegemony – class leadership of the oppressed – begins to appear far more frequently in Lenin’s writings, and it appears in a more developed form. In 1918, in The State and Revolution, we read:

“Only the proletariat – by virtue of the economic role it plays in large-scale production – is capable of being the leader of all the working and exploited people, whom the bourgeoisie exploit, oppress and crush, often not less but more than they do the proletarians, but who are incapable of waging an independent struggle for their emancipation.” (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; p281)

No other class other than that of workers has been prepared by its position in the mode of production for such a role; No other class is organized through labour in such large groupings and social conditions; No other class has the skills to continue production and lay the foundations for the new socialist society in the eventuality of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.

The Dictatorship of The Proletariat (Domination)

At this point, after the revolutionary deposition of the capitalist class, Lenin’s ‘hegemony’ acquires another vital aspect to its overall meaning, one that we also find in the writings of Antonio Gramsci; namely, domination. Now we see hegemony as necessary not just in order to lead the oppressed classes in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie; but also as essential to the proletariat to maintain its class domination and quell the “desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie”. This period in which the proletariat assumes the position of society’s ruling class is by no means the completion of the workers’ revolution. It is simply the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The workers revolution is only complete when all classes have been abolished from society.

Now, the distinction, falsely forged in desperation by the Eurocommunists and reformists of all shades, of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and Lenin’s understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat is exposed to all as wholly inaccurate. Simply put, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the mobilization of “a ‘special coercive force’ for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat”. (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; p275) In other words, Gramsci’s understanding of the ‘domination’ aspect of hegemony is identical to Lenin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

In the writings of both Lenin and Gramsci, the proletarian-led, revolutionary alliance of the exploited remained essential before, during and after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. This working class leadership was coupled with a post-insurrectionary working class domination and suppression of the deposed capitalist class and the counter-revolutionary forces it would mobilise in a furious attempt to reclaim its lost superiority. In Gramsci’s first notebook he writes:

“A class is dominant in two ways, namely it is “leading” and “dominant.” It leads the allied classes, it dominates the opposing classes. Therefore, a class can (and must) “lead” even before assuming power; when it is in power it becomes dominant, but it also continues to ‘lead’.” (Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume I; trans. Buttigieg; p136)

Compare this with Lenin’s outline of the strategic necessities of the revolutionary process, again written in 1918:

“In every socialist revolution, however – and consequently in the socialist revolution in Russia which we began on October 25, 1917 – the principal task of the proletariat, and of the poor peasants which it leads, is the positive or constructive work of setting up an extremely intricate and delicate system of new organizational relationships extending to the planned production and distribution of the goods required for the existence of tens of millions of people. Such a revolution can be successfully carried out only if the majority of the population, and primarily the majority of the working people, engage in independent creative work as makers of history. Only if the proletariat and the poor peasants display sufficient class-consciousness, devotion to principle, self-sacrifice and perseverance, will the victory of the socialist revolution be assured.” (Lenin; The Immediate Tasks of The Soviet Government; Lenin: Selected Works; p402)

The overthrow of the bourgeoisie does not herald the birth of a new socialist society; it is merely the transitory stage of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The socialist revolution is only complete when classes have been eliminated from society and thus the state, whose very raison d’être is the suppression of the subordinate classes to ensure the continued superiority of the dominant, is rendered superfluous. The socialist revolution is only completed when a new, completely unprecedented state-form comes into being: the workers state; “which is no longer really a state.” (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Essential Works of Lenin; p301)

The alliances forged before the insurrectionary movement must be maintained and continue to be led by the workers in order to construct the new social and economic conditions for socialism and allow the revolutionary process to progress beyond the temporary moment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Lenin writes in 1919:

“Classes have remained, but in the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat every class has undergone a change, and the relations between the classes have also changed. The class struggle does not disappear under the dictatorship of the proletariat; it merely assumes different forms.” (Lenin; Economics and Politics in The Era of The Dictatorship of the Proletariat; Lenin: Selected Works; p503)

Although Lenin and Gramsci use different language, it is evident that they are describing the same organisational, revolutionary practice. Just as the relative absence of the actual word ‘hegemony’ in Lenin doesn’t denote an omission of the concept; neither does Gramsci’s seldom use of the phrase, ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ in the Prison Notebooks signify its absence from his thought.

The ‘Last Lenin’

The most significant themes of Gramsci’s carceral writings: Hegemony, War of Position and the United Front; as we have seen, were all taken directly from Lenin. Gramsci’s biographer, Alastair Davidson remarks that, “Leninism at its end-point and gramscianism at its beginnings are closely linked.” (Davidson, Alastair; Gramsci & Lenin: 1917-1922; The Socialist Register, 1974; p146) This does not go far enough. Gramsci’s prison writings carry Lenin’s theoretical baton after the Russian’s death. They seek to articulate his final strategic thoughts in a period when Leninism had been crudely distorted and Lenin’s true legacy was fiercely contested, if not always openly, within the Communist International. Gramsci formulated his ideas at the same time as the Comintern was committed to the strategic folly of the Third Period and the abandonment of the United Front. In Lenin’s final years, he realised that the United Front was no longer merely a conjunctural manouvere but in fact the only suitable strategy for the age. Gramsci took the minority position of being faithful to this Lenin. Peter Thomas writes:

“The struggle for ‘civil and political hegemony’, the attempt to construct a proletarian hegemonic apparatus, was Gramsci’s attempt to remain faithful to Lenin’s last will and testament and to deploy the qualitative advance in the development of the concept of hegemony in Western conditions. Far from leading away from the classical thesis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Gramscian theory of proletarian hegemony posits itself as its necessary ‘complement’. War of Position is now not only the ‘only possible’ strategy in the West; as an application of the mass class-based politics of the united front, it has become the sine qua non of a revolutionary politics that wants to produce a politics ‘of a very different type’ on an international scale.” (Thomas, Peter D; The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism; p239)

In light of the evidence, there can be absolutely no question of whether or not Gramsci was a Leninist. His Leninism was far richer and more dynamic than any variant professed by his contemporaries. By crudely cleaving Gramsci from the Leninist tradition, the Eurocommunists and their ancestors present a picture of the man and his theory which is not only historically inaccurate, but opportunistically incomplete. We must reclaim his legacy from its wide-ranging abuse in political discourse and just about every other field of social science.

In the 21st century when much of the left have abandoned Lenin for being antiquated and outmoded, we must look to Gramsci in order to help define what Leninism means today and its relevance to revolutionary struggle in our age. The Leninist left’s dreary re-reading of The State and Revolution and What Is To Be Done?, as if a solution to the many crises that confront us today will magically materialise from within the text, will provide little insight into the questions and tasks presented by the ever advancing and transforming (and increasingly crisis-ridden) capitalism of today. Dogmatism is our enemy within. Gramsci’s dynamic Marxism can aid in undermining the dogma that silently retards us. The revolutionary left needs Gramsci; now more than ever.

From International Socialist Group site.


The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory-Benjamin Noys

Posted by admin On May - 10 - 2013 Comments Off on The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory-Benjamin Noys


The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory
Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010, 212pp., £60 hb

Reviewed by Tom Bunyard


Tom Bunyard is studying for a PhD at Goldsmiths College, London. His work is on Guy Debord’s theory of spectacle and its relation to Hegelian philosophy
ReviewBenjamin Noys begins his The Persistence of the Negative with the following statement of intent: the book aims, he explains, to ‘rehabilitate a thinking of negativity through an immanent critique of contemporary Continental theory’ (ix). For Noys, the latter is currently dominated by what he refers to as affirmationism: a tendency characterised by a commitment to the assertion of creativity, desire, productive potential and the importance of novelty. Such emphases on the primacy of affirmative, creative constitution are said to have cast negativity as secondary and reactive. This for Noys is politically problematic: as affirmationism is often linked to the assertion of anti-capitalist possibilities, the denigration of negativity has furthered the neglect of issues pertaining to resistance and opposition. He thus sets out to ‘excavate’ (13) a new notion of negativity from affirmationism; a negativity geared towards locating and actualising points of ‘rupture’ (4) within capitalist society.

There is much that is appealing about this project. For Noys, optimistic affirmationist depictions of a parasitical capitalism that can be shrugged off through the assertion of collective, constitutive power ‘ontologise resistance’, leaving it ‘vulnerable to the cunning of capitalist reason’ (xi). His consequent attempt to link negativity to themes of agency and strategy seems pertinent, and by presenting it through a critique of affirmationism’s key figures (Noys selects Derrida, Deleuze, Latour, Negri and Badiou) the book makes a significant intervention into contemporary debate. Noys’ claims as to the need for such a negativity are persuasive, and I was impressed by the manner in which he demonstrates that need through the book’s critical readings; I am however rather more sceptical towards the virtues of actually extracting that negativity from affirmationist theory. This latter move rests on Noys’ contention that contemporary capitalism should be understood in terms of real abstraction (a position according to which society’s real, particular differences are mediated and generated by the abstract universality of value).

The task of locating ‘the neuralgic points of capitalism’ (171) might seem to imply the critique of political economy rather than a critique of Continental theory. Yet as for Noys real abstraction has rendered capitalism an ‘ontological, metaphysical and philosophical form’ (173), affirmationism’s tendency to present political resistance in terms of what he refers to as ‘counter-ontology’ (10) are of obvious interest. The problem, however, is that affirmationism’s emphasis on productivity and creativity entail that this counter-ontology can mirror that of capitalism itself; and whilst Noys does not present an ‘isomorphism’ (11) between theory and capital, he does indicate that a critique of the former might consequently offer purchase on the latter. This point seems to rest on the contention that basing critique and opposition on an authentic position located outside or beneath capital’s appearances is a ‘naïveté’ (85): instead, one should ‘work on and against’ (10) the abstractions that one finds oneself within. Hence the book’s attempt to extract a negativity from the positivity of affirmationism that might be suited to the task of traversing capitalism’s ‘ontological terrain’ (86). I’ll return to these points below.

Noys begins with a reading of Derrida that introduces the need to de-reify negativity, and argues, by way of Nietzsche, that a negative politics involves the disruption of accumulation and power. Deleuze’s interest in points of mutation are then used to connect this to strategy and intervention, and Latour’s rejection of radical politics is employed, often humorously, to indicate the need to think negativity as practice. This is followed by a particularly successful discussion of Negri, whose Spinozist monism is said to paralyse the identification of strategic points of attack. Noys then uses Badiou to suggest that negativity might be linked to agency rather than to subjectivity – a point that I’ll also return to below – before closing with a conclusion that ties the resultant elements together.

The negativity that results can be qualified by noting Noys’ excellent introduction, which describes affirmationism’s emergence from two prior theoretical trends. Firstly, a nihilistic, post-1968 tendency to align emancipatory potential with the unleashing of capital flows (linked to the early 1970’s work of Baudrillard, Deleuze and Lyotard). Having been rendered untenable by the realities of 1980’s neo-liberalism, this gave rise to a subsequent interest in linking opposition to transcendence, difference, and otherness. Affirmationism’s concerns with immanent, but also oppositional forms synthesise these two tendencies, and Noys is similarly concerned to avoid associating negativity with either immanence or transcendence: he contends that a focus on the generation of immanent difference would echo the operation of real abstraction, whilst transcendent externality mirrors the ‘void’ of abstract value itself. Noys’ account of negativity as ‘immanent rupture’ (17) avoids association with either pole: it is ‘internal’ (128) to the positivity that it contests, but exists in a ‘relation of rupture’ (172) with it.

This rupture is linked to Noys’ interests in agency, which he does not associate with the individual subject (169), but rather – whilst quoting David Harvey – with ‘leverage points within the system’ (18) (the identification of which might sit oddly with the book’s thematic interest in theoretical reflections of capital’s logics: as social relations can only be addressed through theoretical abstraction, Noys argues that combating real abstraction requires not less, but rather ‘greater abstraction’ (167)). The identification and actualisation of these points relates to his notion of traversal, which is in part a reference to Lacan (by way of Žižek): revealing the ‘structural absence of the subject’ (169) to be the necessary gap within real abstraction’s symbolic chain exposes the nature of an economic order that has grown independent of the subjects that it dominates. Rupture is thus a break from capital that reveals one’s own purely abstract, functional status within it.

This is a negativity that avoids association with pure identity or externality, and which links something akin to self-consciouness to political action. It is even cautiously associated with determinate negation (74) and historical awareness (albeit figured as the continuity of a political project (169)), and in consequence Noys’ dismissal of Hegelian negativity as congruent with real abstraction’s own positive generation of determinacy feels a little abrupt: for given these homologies, could this negativity have been derived from an excavation of Hegelian currents rather than from affirmationism?

This returns us to the question of source material, and thereby to Noys’ views on real abstraction. His deliberate ‘downgrading’ (169) of the subject and refusal of any external opposition to capital seems connected to the sense in which his points of rupture are not (solely) those of traditional Marxism: there are no concrete proletarians opposed to a merely false and apparent regime of value. Noys seems to accept the labour theory of value, and thus capital’s basis in the wage relation, but he contends that the latter’s centrality to capitalism renders its identification with emancipatory potential politically ‘retrograde’ (166). Yet if the wage relation is no longer the focal point of resistance to capital, what then is capital, and on what grounds are these other points of opposition to be located? Noys contends at one point that Badiou’s moves towards a politicised negative are undermined by a ‘relative blindness to questions of political economy’ (139); yet doesn’t deriving the beginnings of his own negativity from affirmationism tend towards this very problem? The danger would then be that of replicating the error that Noys ascribes so convincingly to Negri: namely, an inability to identify how and where capital might be stategically attacked (127).

I don’t wish to attribute this problem to Noys’ book; his interests lie in broadening political action beyond that classical point of antagonism, not in doing away with it altogether. However, casting a focus on the wage relation as retrograde does raise this issue, and the resultant question of locating political opposition is linked, via his understanding of real abstraction and rejection of externality, to the book’s apparent contention that one might learn how to engage with capitalism by criticising the theories that reflect it. Certainly, Noys is indicating the beginnings of an approach, not practical prescriptions per se; even so, this apparent equation of the critique of ideology to that of economics might seem unsteady ground for a strategic engagement.

Yet despite my concerns as to the route that the book takes towards those recommendations and conclusions, the latter are themselves both pertinent and persuasive. After all, the book seems intended as an intervention into contemporary debates, and thus ultimately as a prompt for further work; to suggest that its views on negativity imply further economic or sociological research is thus in a sense in keeping with its own intentions. Noys’ contention that the present political context requires a reconsideration of negativity is convincing, and his claim that it should be linked to agency, practice and strategy is particularly attractive. Furthermore, Noys’ critical readings of the book’s selected theorists are useful and informative in their own right. This is thus an impressive work, and should be recommended to anyone concerned with the political dimensions of Continental philosophy and theory, or to those intrigued by philosophical approaches to negativity.


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