Phil BC is posting a series of commentaries on the ideas of the great Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and I've just read an interesting new article on Gramsci's relevance for today. Here are a few thoughts of my own, particularly on the issue of Gramsci's relationship to the revolutionary and Bolshevik tradition (especially his ideas about the united front as revolutionary strategy).
Gramsci was an active revolutionary. It is remarkable how easily this is overlooked, since he has (since the 1970s) become firmly established as a 'respectable' Marxist in university departments. He helped lead the workers' councils movement during Italy's red years after the end of World War One. Gramsci learnt the lesson that a nationwide network of revolutionary socialists is needed at such times - and that such a network has to be built in advance, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks had done prior to 1917's revolution in Russia.
Gramsci then helped establish the Communist Party in Italy, in 1921, but there were severe problems of sectarianism from the outset. The left was fragemented and, partly because of this, Mussolini was able to lead his fascists to power. Gramsci's Prison Notebooks were written after the fascists, accurately perceiving him to be a political threat, jailed him in 1926.
The Notebooks were his theoretical distillation of the experiences of that age of wars and revolutions, in Russia and Europe alike. While often viewed as advocating something radically different to the Bolshevik tradition for Western societies, Gramsci formulated socialist strategy as part of the Bolshevik tradition. There may be differences between East and West, but there were also profound similarities. His ideas about organisation and tactics appropriate to more advanced European countries were an adaptation of Bolshevism not a departure from it.
A key lesson concerned the limits of purely economic (or industrial) struggles. Just as Lenin polemicised against 'economism' in 'What is to be Done?' (1903), Gramsci stressed the need for politics, not just workplace struggles over immediate economic issues. Spontaneous economic struggles aren't enough to change society.
This is, fundamentally, because social transformation requires confronting the capitalist state. That is a political and revolutionary act. Gramsci has been tamed by academia so he appears as a gradualist, a reformist who wanted to develop 'counter-hegemony' without, apparently, confronting capitalist power through a mass revolutionary challenge. Yet that is a huge misinterpretation of his ideas and writings - he was clear that the state had to be overthrown.
But Gramsci also knew that social transformation wasn't something to just patiently wait for. Neither could it be brought about by any self-appoined revolutionary group, substituting for mass action. For the vast majority of the time revolutionaries' task is to help create mechanisms for uniting people in struggles and campaigns for reforms, generalising and politicising resistance wherever possible. Mere syndicalism - limiting resistance to specific economic demands - is never sufficient to challenge the system politically. Trade union struggles, while vital, can always be accommodated within the system.
Lenin had recognised the need for an independent revolutionary organisation, a core of dedicated socialists, but also for those revolutionaries to have an on-going, dynamic relationship with broader forces. The organised revolutionaries and the united fronts are two interconnected poles. Ultimately, revolutionaries want to - in Gramsci's terms - break capitalist hegemony completely. In pursuit of this aim it is necessary for revolutionaries to unite with reformists and others in struggles over concrete demands.
Perhaps Gramsci's greatest contribution was to flesh out what this way of operating meant in societies with much stronger reformist traditions and union bureaucracies - and a more sophisticated set of institutions helping perpetuate the system - than was the case in Russia. This makes him profoundly relevant for us today.
Gramsci saw the united front as the defining feature of revolutionary strategy in advanced capitalism, enabling often very marginal groups of revolutionary socialists to facilitate effective action by much larger social forces. They could, through united fronts, punch above their weight.
The notion of Gramsci somehow deviating from Lenin, Trotsky and the Russian tradition is simply wrong. Gramsci was, from the early 1920s onwards, an advocate of independent and cohesive revolutionary organisation. He saw his own theoretical work - in particular concerning political strategy - as extending Lenin and Trotsky's arguments, in the Third International (or Comintern), for united fronts as central to winning broad support and increasing Communist influence.
In fact, the Bolsheviks had previously adopted the united front method - Trotsky talked, in the 1920s, of the workers' soviets as having been an advanced form of the united front. Gramsci was preoccupied with how the struggle for working class hegemony should be waged in Western conditions, with larger and more powerful working classes but also more challenging obstacles.
Gramsci's work on hegemony complements Lukacs’ analysis of class consciousness, how it can transform from mixed and contradictory to being revolutionary, and his writings about revolution . Gramsci focuses more on institutions, Lukacs more on alienation and reification, but these are compatible and can be integrated. We need the insights of both Gramsci and Lukacs, together with the legacy of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, when examining the challenges ahead for the revolutionary left.