A portrait photograph of Gramsci in 1915. Gramsci, photographed in 1915. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Published for the first time in English, Antonio Santucci’s book Antonio Gramsci is a brilliant short introduction to the life and work of one of the most important revolutionaries of the 20th century


Antonio Santucci, Antonio Gramsci (Monthly Review Press 2010), 176 pp.

This book is particularly welcome because so many other commentators have distorted Gramsci’s politics. Ever since the publication of his Prison Notebooks in 1948 influential commentators from the left and academia have tried to present Gramsci as a gradualist or a ‘cultural’ Marxist.

Even the more perceptive studies tend to try and distinguish Gramsci from the classical revolutionary Marxist tradition, arguing that he developed a uniquely open, undogmatic Marxism.

In the forward to this very book, Joseph Buttigieg goes as far as to claim that Gramsci preferred ‘specificity and particularity over universal philosophy and totalizing theory’. All the same, Antonio Santucci, who was Italy’s foremost Gramsci scholar until his death in 1999, puts the record straight here in elegant and understated style.

Gramsci was in fact Italy’s most talented revolutionary leader in the years of turmoil after World War I. At this time, Italy came close to insurrection. Gramsci helped set up factory councils in northern industrial centres in the two red years of 1919-1920, and then played a lead role in the early history of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

When he was arrested by Mussolini’s thugs in 1926 he was the leading figure in the PCI. The truth is that more than any other figure in the Italian leadership, Gramsci took Lenin’s side in the debates of the time. Through a careful reading of some of Gramsci’s key early political writings, Santucci outlines Gramsci’s most important practical and theoretical contributions to the developing struggle.

The Factory Councils

The Russian revolution was based on workers’ councils or soviets. Gramsci tried to replicate this model by campaigning for factory councils as a vehicle for strengthening and broadening the Italian movement. His call in the paper Ordine Nuovo was taken up in the metal works and the car plants across Northern Italy and beyond in the years 1919-1920.

This search for a concrete form of a workers’ state marked a break from the mix of parliamentary politics and propaganda for socialism that had marked left practice until then. Gramsci recognised that workers needed new institutions to transform the world, but he also showed complete contempt for socialists who only comment on the world, preach to the workers, or passively wait for them to act.

The formula of “proletarian dictatorship” must cease to be only a formula or an opportunity to show off some revolutionary phraseology. Whoever wants the ends must also want the means. Proletarian dictatorship means the establishment of a new state, a typically proletarian one, in which the institutional experiences of the oppressed class come together and the social life of workers and peasants becomes a predominant and strongly organized system (p. 69).

Political leadership

The Councils were the organising centre of an insurrectionary movement. Crucially they cut across the sectionalism of the trade unions which divided workers according to profession. They reached out and drew in workers who weren’t even in unions. They aimed at the unitary organisation of the whole of the class.

Real life proved however that the factory councils in themselves could not transform society. The great Turin strike of April 1920 and the wave of factory occupations in the following autumn were eventually crushed by the united action of the industrialists using the whole state machinery. The factory councils by definition drew together workers with many different opinions. They were organising centres and forums for debate. In order to win the argument for revolutionary action within them, the revolutionaries had to be organised amongst themselves. The existing Socialist Party could not perform this function because it itself contained many different strands of thinking.

In Gramsci’s words (p. 80):

It is an agglomeration of parties; it moves and cannot but move lazily and slowly; it is constantly exposed to the risk of becoming easy prey for adventurers, careerists, and ambitious people without political seriousness or ability; because of its heterogeneity, the innumerable frictions in its gears, worn out and sabotaged by servant-masters, it is never capable of taking on itself the burden and responsibility of revolutionary initiatives and actions constantly being imposed by the pressing events.

The Socialist Party and the trade unions actually came together to discuss the situation and voted against a revolution. As Santucci comments, ‘the movement paid dearly for a lack of centralized direction’. The ruling class was able to re-impose their order because the movement was indecisive at the moment of maximum potential. Like Lenin and the Bolsheviks before him Gramsci’s conclusion was the need for separate, revolutionary organisation. Gramsci was one of the founding members of the communist party in 1920.

First separate, then come together again

The point of separate revolutionary organisation is not to distance activists from the rest of the class, but more effectively to lead the wider movement. By 1924 Gramsci realised that the newly formed Italian Communist Party was failing to work together with other forces to provide direction to the movement. Its members were standing on the sidelines critiquing the rest of the left. The party was becoming a ‘pathological minority movement’, an ‘apparatus of functionaries who closely adhered to the party line’, rather than increasing its influence and standing by engaging in day to day struggles alongside others.

Gramsci campaigned hard to change this approach. Under his leadership the party put itself at the centre of resistance to Mussolini after he won a majority in parliament in 1924. Because it built a genuinely broad campaign and its members took a lead, the PCI made a leap forward. The circulation of its newspaper trebled and Gramsci could write ‘I believe our party has become a real mass party’.

In his campaign against the ultra-left arguments of Amadeo Bordiga, Gramsci stressed that the corollary to isolation from the wider movement was a deadening internal regime (p. 92):

Mass participation in the party’s activity and internal life, other than on great occasions and following formal orders from the centre, was seen as a danger to unity and centralism. The party was not seen as a dialectical process where the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses converge with the centre’s determination for organising and guiding.

The prison years

Gramsci’s adult life is inescapably divided into two parts; the period of activism up to 1926 and the terrible years in fascist prisons that ultimately killed him in 1937. Showing remarkable will power, Gramsci spent his prison years filling a series of notebooks with analysis of the mechanisms of capitalist power and strategies of opposition. As Santucci discusses in the introduction, these notebooks need to be considered as provisional documents, not finished articles. Santucci shows that far from marking a break in his development, the notebooks were an examination of the experience of his years leading the movement and an elaboration on the key themes of his political writings.

The standard argument has long been that Gramsci’s idea of ‘hegemony’ implied the Leninist model was not applicable to conditions in the West, and that what was needed was a gradual takeover of capitalist institutions. Often the idea of ‘hegemony’ has been used to justify standard electoral reformist strategies. PCI leaders have repeatedly cited Gramsci in justification of left electoral blocs with bourgeois parties. Academic Marxists and cultural commentators have used Gramsci to try to transform Marxism into a struggle for intellectual dominance within the universities or the media. All of these interpretations of Gramsci drastically downplay the importance of class struggle in changing the world.

Santucci shows these interpretations to be false. Gramsci did make a distinction between brittle, undeveloped societies like Tzarist Russia in which the state was central to maintaining ruling class power, and more developed capitalist societies where civil society and consent played a more important role. But, he argued, Lenin himself had made precisely this point. In fact Lenin and Trotsky had led an argument, at the third and fourth international gatherings of the Communist movement, that revolutionaries need to work with other forces in creating united fronts to establish revolutionary hegemony. Even in Russia in 1917 the Bolsheviks had repeatedly used this strategy.

Far from leading away from revolution, Gramsci’s view of hegemony restated the need for organised revolutionary leadership. More sophisticated societies demanded a more intensive use of united front work, to break sections of the middle classes away from the capitalists, and a greater concentration on undermining the influence of ruling class ideas. Gramsci stressed the central importance of socialist leadership in this process. The ‘collective intellectual’ – the revolutionary party – is the key to generating hegemony. ‘One of the most important characteristics of every group that increases its power is the fight to assimilate and conquer traditional intellectuals “ideologically”. This occurs much more rapidly and effectively inasmuch as the given group simultaneously develops its own organic intellectuals’ (p. 142).

Perhaps Gramsci’s most important contribution to Marxist theory was to insist on the need to develop clear, revolutionary consciousness amongst the widest possible layers of the population as a precondition of real change. It was in this context that he argued ‘one cannot talk of non-intellectuals, because they do not exist… there is no human activity that excludes intellectual intervention’. But such a stress on human agency underlined once again the importance of party organisation. Revolutionary consciousness can never develop in a vacuum. For Gramsci it could only be the product of the dynamic interaction between class struggle and socialist organisation, or as he put it ‘a dialectical process where the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses converge with the centre’s determination for organising and guiding’.

He made a distinction between war of manoeuvre by which workers could make swift advances in struggles for ‘non-decisive positions’, and a more drawn out war of position which characterised the final struggle for change in advanced capitalist societies. Crucially, the war of position was not a description of a gradualist strategy but a recognition of the huge resources that will be brought to bear by the old society when its very existence is being challenged. To successfully overcome these obstacles requires the mobilisation of ‘almost unheard of levels of hegemony.’

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are a treasure trove of commentary on a wide range of issues including education, Fordism, the Italian Renaissance, the role of intellectuals, the nature of literature, the problem of the peasantry and so on. Yet for all his respect for the concrete and particular, Gramsci was far from being anti-theory as some have argued.

What is true is that, like Marx, he didn’t seek to build a closed philosophical system. His aim was to comprehend actual reality through an analysis of human activity. This analysis could not arise spontaneously. Its origin and basis had to be theorised and understood. It had to be rooted in the experience of the working class, because only the working class had an interest in overthrowing existing, exploitative relations and therefore understanding and exposing them. Other classes benefit from concealing contradictions. Marxism, or ‘the philosophy of praxis’ as Gramsci called it, is precisely the theory of those contradictions.

It is not an instrument of rule for the dominant classes to gain the consent of, and exercise hegemony over, the subordinate classes. It is the expression of these subordinate classes who want to educate themselves in the art of governing and are interested in knowing all truths, even unpleasant ones (p. 152).

Amongst the many insights in this book there are some false notes. Santucci is remarkably kind to Palmiro Togliatti, General Secretary of the PCI after Gramsci was imprisoned. Togliatti presided over the Stalinisation of the party and pioneered both the gradualist interpretation of the Prison Notebooks and the reformist strategy that came to dominate Italian Communism. Santucci also reports Gramsci’s hostility to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution without comment. Gramsci’s hostility to permanent revolution appears paradoxical because Trotsky’s theory, and the early Bolshevik practice that was in line with it, confirm Gramsci’s insistence on the need for alliances to ensure working class hegemony.

Nevertheless this is a valuable and beautifully written account of Gramsci’s life and work. It locates his genius in the struggles of the moment, insists on his commitment to revolution throughout his life and argues for his continuing relevance.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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