Sunday, 7 February 2010

Gramsci, the united front and revolutionary strategy

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.


  1. Gramsci did in fact have a very ambiguous relationship to Trotsky. One reason for this of course was that he was in a fascist jail and therefore isolated from debates. But it does no good to pretend that he was really a Trotskyist. Its also true that in his early political activity he was closely aligned with the ultra-left on the one hand (Bordiga, and syndicalist currents on the other. So much of his writing relates to the limitations of both. But he was part of the general shift towards recognising the need to understand the strength of reformism, the real cockpit of this argument being in Germany (in many ways without a discussion of the experiances of the German Revolution and the comintern its impossible to understand either Gramsci or what we today call Leninism: hence the importance of Harman's book on the Lost Revolution, and Broue's little masterpiece now thankfully available in English). But it was his ambiguity towards Trotsky which was the real draw, both for the Italian Communist Party after the second world war, and for the academic mileau (often ex-Communist Party) during the 1970s. His quite ferocious attacks on what he took to be Trotsky's 'theory of the offensive' represented a strange displacement of his own earlier politics onto that of Trotsky, who had actually been responsible for weaning him away from that kind of ultra-leftism. But then such displacements are not unusual in politics.

  2. For an interesting account of Gramsci's political anad theoretical development and the ambiguities and problems with Gramsci's mature position as it was of necessity, elliptically worked through in the 'Prison Notebooks' in relation to revolutionary strategy in the 'East' and 'West', its key terms ie. civil society, state, 'war of maneouvre', 'war of position', the debates in the Comintern etc, you could do worse than read Perry Anderson's 'Antimonies of Antonio Gramsci' NLR 100 (1976).

  3. Yes, I'd agree Perry Anderson's piece is worth reading - I read it years ago and made a point of looking at a few parts of it again before writing this. Chris Harman, who had great expertise on Gramsci's writings, wrote a very good piece in 1977 which addressed many of the same issues in Anderson's essay, from the perspective of the International Socialists tradition.

    I didn't suggest Gramsci was 'really a Trotskyist'. I argued his ideas were consistent with the Bolshevik tradition, represented above all by Lenin and his theoretical and organisational innovations (specifically regarding the revolutionary party and Marxist strategy). This is principally in response to the widespread mis-perception of Gramsci as some sort of gradualist, or as embodying a break from Leninism.

  4. This excerpt from Harman in 1977 (it can be found at is very useful: '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. And he explicitly identifies the ‘war of position’ with ‘the formula of the United Front.’

    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’.

  5. There is just a slight problem though, of describing Gramsci following
    Lenin and Trotsky if someone opens up the book and finds long (coded)
    diatribes against Trotsky (which unfortunately one does).

    Of great interest is the project of turning out an entire translation
    of Gramsci's Prison Notebook's into English. I think there are three
    volumes out so far each one of them as large as the Notebooks actually
    so far translated and I was shocked to discover that all togeather
    there will be about twenty nine! Already a number of commentators have
    alluded to the fact that this is sure to completely change much of the
    recieved wisdom about the significance of his work.

    There is also new evidence that even Perry Anderson's (very useful)
    article is somewhat dated. At one point in this essay he alludes to
    changes in Gramsci's position whilst in jail.

    Peter Thomas has written that he got the order of writing wrong (easy
    enough to do when their gradual leaking and translation was at the
    tender mercies of the PCI) and that much of this account of the
    development of his thought will have to be re-appraissed (he has
    written a book published by Brill with Historical Materialism: he's
    also written an article for Workers Liberty summerising some of these
    arguments, being close to the Australian tendency of that
    organisation: well you can't have everything).

    Apparently aside from much evidence that Gramsci was not really
    someone who wrote more about culture then economics which becomes
    inescapable as his full writings become available, its also true that
    there is masses and masses of material on the Catholic Church, much of
    it suppressed by the PCI because of their popular frontist politics
    (this is also clear in the new 'further selections' edition).

  6. This is interesting to me because one of the puzzles of Gramsci's
    reputation as someone who understood western European polities better
    then the kind of backward authoritarian regime the Bolshevik's
    inhabited, is that he hardly lived in a typical western European
    bourgoise democracy. Even with the (very) limited access we have so
    far had it was very clear that in sections like 'Notes on Italian
    History' he was primarily concerned rather with what seemed the
    peculiarities of Italian history, 'the southern question', the
    mobilisation of the peasentry to smash the workers movement in Turin,
    etc, etc and a thorough analyses of precisely why Italy was NOT like
    northern countries, despite the existence of parliamentry institutions
    and (for a time) legal trade unions etc (in what we know captured
    through concepts like 'the passive revolution' etc).

    Its one reason why his work was eagerly read in countries like India,
    in quite a different way. It looks like we're in for a rich feast. My
    suspician is that almost everything so far written on the subject will
    have to be looked at again. Of course none of this changes the
    essentials of the matter: that Gramsci was a revolutionary whose work
    was distorted to fit the political fashions of an entirely different
    political period...but it does suggest that we need to be alive to the
    possibility that much of what we think we know may be wrong. Which is
    no bad thing. Indeed its rather exciting. But its also true that we
    need to be a bit careful with sweeping statements about his precise
    political positions (I never really bought Chris's idea for instance
    that Gramsci was simply discussing the Italian rigormento as a
    metaphore for proletarian revolution. I think he was deadly serious
    about the need for Communists to understand the limitations of Italian
    bourgoise radicalism, (and in many ways his own theory of passive
    revolution was a kind of alternative to 'combined and uneven
    development'. I suspect its here that one would find differences as
    well as fruitful parrallels with Trotsky which did not simply relect
    the parroting of the lies about Trotsky he was hearing).

    But all this does not take away the significance of his shock at the
    failure of his earlier ultra-left politics, and his determination to
    break with them, that in many ways shapes the whole monumental

    Funnily enough I remember my shock when I discovered the loathing with
    which the Italian anarchist and ultra-left held Gramsci in. They
    remembered him as a deeply authoritarian Communist leader. It was odd
    to discover people for whom Gramsci was still a protagonist. Perhaps
    he still will be.

  7. Peter Thomas on "Modernity as Passive Revolution":

  8. When we are talking of "a typical western European bourgoise democracy" we need to be clear that such a beast never existed outside the heads of political scientists (sic) and Karl Kautsky. The term is a convenience of limited use as those countries we deem 'typical' were those that had undergone an evolution thought by the followers of Kautsky and later Stalin to be unavoidable.

    Gramsci was then correct to look at the specificities of Italy and given that the general view of things had already been outlined by 'Marxism' what need had he of recapitulating views thought the common property of the movement?

    Here though is where there is a profound commonality with the ideas of Trotsky. As it can be argued that by looking at the specific development of Italy he was developing an understanding of combined and uneven development as it affected that country. By arguing that socialism was a practicality and a necessity for further development of the south of Italy, he echoes Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution.

    I would argue that revolution from above can be seen as closely related to the general theory of permanent revolution. After all is it not his contention that revolution from above occurs when there is no subaltern class able to overthrow a decayed ruling strata? Reminds me of deflected permanent revolution come to that.

    All of which only deepens his misunderstanding of the views of Trotsky as they unfolded in the later 1920s and into the 1930s. A misunderstanding that was made worse by the fact that the Comintern had already entered into its degeneration under the leadership of Zinoviev the man who was Lenin’s greatest mistake just as it might be claimed that one John Rees was the greatest mistake of Tony Cliff if you will pardon my joke.

    And Trotsky too, in part, reflected the degeneration of the Comintern and the RCP(b). Hence his polemic against Brandler and Thalheimer in The Lessons of October when it was these very comrades who best explained the need for the workers United Front and as leaders of the KPD had greater experience of its application than any Bolshevik.

    What is central however to the conception of the United Front by each of the thinkers I’ve mentioned here is that all considered it to have an episodic character. To confuse such a tactic with an overarching strategy is to misunderstand the meaning of both terms. To confuse the United Front tactic with the method that underlies it, the method of transitional politics, is to misunderstand the very ABCs of Marxism. But that is common given the crisis of the revolutionary left I regret to say.


  9. ...I agree that there are parrallels between Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development and Gramsci's notion of 'passive revolution'. I just think we have to be a bit careful about assuming some kind of identity. Its not true that Gramsci was unfamiliar with Trotsky's writings. We know he read them. He was'nt a casual reader. He was nonetheless bitterly hostile to Trotsky and his theory in what he wrote, actually counterposing his theory to that of Trotsky's. Now its true that conditions in the fascist jail meant that loss o solidarity with CP members both inside and outside the jails would probably have meant death. But its also true that the direction of his critique and interests would have been compatible with rejecting the politics of the left opposition although they were equally incompatible with stalinism and its twists and turns. But then that was the dominant position of the lost generation of communist leaders, almost none of whom turned to the highly marginalised left opposition. I just worry about a political equivilant of fantasy football. I think we have to read him in the same way we read Levi (although he was I think head and shoulders above even that remarkable figure). A great revolutionary caught in a tragedy not of their making. And of course its true that Trotsky's writings on some of these figures even later are not wholly reliable. He was (later) struggling to hold togeather tiny groups of adherents for whom those washed up on the beach by the tides of revolution and counter-revolution would have represented a fatal draw. Its depressing sometimes when you read Trotsky's magnificant prose realising that on occassion he's denouncing groups of about 15 people. Neccessary perhaps. But as with Gramsci's position in jail, neccessarily distorting. Incidently Peter Thomas's article posted above really is outstanding. Much food for thought there.

  10. On the question of whether there were such things as typical western polities. There is a contemporary confusion here because of the way that much of what we think of liberal democracy really only existed in Europe since 1945 (you know, the sort of idealised picture of this state of affairs you get from the liberal bombers). However in the latter decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century discussion amongst as various Marxists as Lenin, Kautsky and the rest about the two paths of capitalist development focused on the famous contrast between revolution from above and revolution from below in terms of capitalist development. Peter Thomas's article is fascinating because it goes through the different stages of this argument in Gramsci. In the first place he spends much of his time contrasting Italy with France. He ends up with a broader historical canvass that does perhaps put a more general question mark under the whole question of sonderweg and typical development. But I think this framework is not intended to take to dissolve the differences between a state like Italy and a state like France. Its fascinating to consider the extent to which later Italian history bears out much of his argument. There is still today a 'southern question' in Italy (even if differently articulated). There is still today much discussion of the 'dark side of Italy' etc, etc.