Chris Bambery explores the relationship between “spontaneous” working class struggle and revolutionary organisation through the work of Antonio Gramsci

Gramsci“Spontaneist” was the supposed insult thrown at Antonio Gramsci and his editorial comrades at L’Ordine Nuovo in 1919. Their crime? To champion the factory councils centred on Turin, to argue that they formed the basis for a new workers’ state, and to assert the necessity of carrying through a revolution at a time of momentous working class insurgency.

The various factions of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), from right to far left, saw socialism, whether coming through parliament or revolution, as being delivered by the party – the dictatorship of the party rather than the dictatorship of the proletariat. To their shock Gramsci’s message met with the approval of Vladimir Lenin in Moscow, but they stopped short of labeling him a “spontaneist.”

Debates in the run up to World War One

No two periods of history exactly correspond but there are some interesting parallels between today and the years 1910-1914. Gramsci came to socialism in the immediate years before the First World War. Like many of his generation he reacted against the dull, mechanical “Marxism” which dominated the PSI and the other labour and social democratic parties of the Second International.

These parties saw history as a progressive curve which would inevitably end at socialism. For those who still thought of the need for revolution, a revolutionary crisis would emerge at some point when the party had to lead the working class to overcome ruling class resistance.

The problem was that in the four years before the outbreak of war in 1914 there was a bosses’ offensive, a shift right within the industrial section of the ruling class, rising inter imperialist tension and a growth in nationalism.

To match that there was an increase in industrial militancy and the rise of mass movements demanding suffrage for women, in opposition to war and conscription, and much else. Revolutions had also happened in Russia and Iran.

In Britain the new Labour Party had reached an electoral pact with the ruling Liberals. This left it being a virtual appendage of the Asquith government as it used troops against strikers, force fed suffragettes on hunger strike and sanctioned troops to gun down Irish nationalists. Activists who had previously had high hopes in the new party had to look elsewhere.

This generation of activists reacted to their specific context in a variety of different ways. In Italy within the PSI they rallied to a firebrand called Benito Mussolini who offered “action, action, action” instead of dry theory. Yet the most common form of rebellion was to adopt the ideas of syndicalism: to reject parliamentary politics and trade union bureaucracy, and to look to direct action culminating in a general strike.

The stress on the spontaneous acts of working class rebellion was a healthy reaction to the passivity of social democracy. The most inspiring example was probably the Industrial Workers of the World in the US – and it echoed across the global working class.

The IWW was wonderful when the class was on the up and, while I wouldn’t make a direct comparison, Mussolini’s rhetoric reflected the stormy struggles across Italy. Socialists threatened a general strike if world war broke out, suffragettes took direct action to the limit, and in Ireland nationalists armed themselves in response to Unionist military opposition to home rule. Yet in 1914 (a year later in Italy when it finally entered the war) they would virtually all rally to their nation state.

To their immense credit the IWW shouted “no war but the class war”. But it wasn’t enough – Karl Liebknecht’s “the main enemy is at home” and Lenin’s insistence that socialists should support the military defeat of their own ruling class offered a fuller response.

Mussolini broke from the PSI along with a coterie of ex-syndicalists, anarchists and socialists to form an ultra-nationalist, pro-war grouping which would eventually become the Fascist Party (most of the ex-leftists had dropped out by then).

That was the extreme case but underlying it all were three problems. One was that just stressing action left activists shipwrecked when struggle ebbed. There was no ‘spontaneous’ anti-imperialist response to war.

Second, a focus on one issue – whether trade union struggle, women’s rights or peace – did not provide an overall global view. Third, individually it is difficult to react to massive global events like that of August 1914. One of the strengths of organisation is it can draw on the time-bank of working class experience and on collective discussion.

Lessons from the revolutionary period after World War One

In 1914 Gramsci did himself no good in initially trying to explain away Mussolini’s break. By 1916, however, opposition to war was growing. A year later the Russian Revolution gave not just inspiration but an alternative to the “Marxism” of the Second International.

By 1920, faced with a revolutionary crisis, Gramsci began to stress the need for a new kind of party. The first thing was to respond to spontaneous rebellion by throwing yourself into it 100 percent. But he also stressed the need for leadership, a dirty word for many of the pre-war activists as it is for many today.

For Gramsci there is never such a thing as pure spontaneity:

It must be stressed that ‘pure’ spontaneity does not exist in history: it would come to the same thing as ‘pure’ mechanicity. In the ‘most spontaneous’ movement it is simply the case that the elements of ‘conscious leadership’ cannot be checked, have left no reliable document. It may be said that spontaneity is therefore characteristic of the ‘history of the subaltern classes’, and indeed of their most marginal and peripheral elements … Hence in such movements there exist multiple elements of ‘conscious leadership’ but no one of them is predominant or transcends the level of a given social stratum’s ‘popular science’ – its ‘common sense’ or traditional conception of the world.”

(Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wisharn 1971, P196-7)

On the one hand Gramsci rejected counterposing spontaneity favourably to Marxism. On the other he rejects those who simply dismiss spontaneous rebellion:

Neglecting, or worse still, despising, so-called ‘spontaneous’ 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. It is almost always the case that a ‘spontaneous’ movement of the subaltern classes is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right-wing of the dominant class, for concomitant reasons. An economic crisis, for instance, engenders on the one hand discontent among the subaltern classes and spontaneous mass 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 to give any conscious leadership to the spontaneous revolts or to make them into a positive political factor.”

(SPN P199)

For Gramsci the relationship between spontaneity and conscious leadership is in large part the relationship between party and class. In 1920 the Italian social democrats and trade union bureaucrats had sufficient organisation and support to subvert the revolution.

Gramsci and his comrades were organised in one city, Turin, and won it to revolution, but were absent from Milan, Genoa and elsewhere. The force of tradition and common sense could overcome the scattered voices of good sense.

The experience burnt itself into Gramsci’s mind. Looking back he reflected on the experience of L’Ordine Nuovo in 1919-20:

The Turin movement was accused simultaneously of being ‘spontaneist’ and ‘voluntarist’ or Bergsonian. This contradictory accusation, if one analyses it, only testifies to the fact that the leadership given to the movement was both creative and correct. This 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. The element of ‘spontaneity’ was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, directed, purged of extraneous contaminations; the aim was to bring it in line with modern theory (marxism) – but in a living and historically effective manner. The leaders themselves spoke of the ‘spontaneity’ of the movement and rightly so. This 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’ or ‘discipline’ is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes, insofar as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses.”

(SPN P198)

Gramsci poses the question:

Can modern theory [marxism] be in opposition to the ‘spontaneous’ feelings of the masses? (‘Spontaneists’ in the sense that they are not the result of any systematic educational activity on the part of an already conscious leading group, but have been formed through everyday experience illuminated by ‘common sense’ i.e. by the traditional popular conception of the world).”

(SPN P198-199)

He answered his own question thus:

It cannot be in opposition to them. Between the two there is a ‘quantitative’ difference of degree not one of quality. A reciprocal ‘reduction’ so to speak, a passage from one to the other and vice versa, must be possible.”

(SPN P199)

In 1923 Gramsci came up with his own definition of the relationship between party and class:

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.”

(Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, p198)

For him “everyone is a philosopher, though in his own way and unconsciously.”
(SPN P323)

What I think Gramsci is saying is that we possess a contradictory and fragmented view of the world which contains sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit acts of rebellion. He sets the task of forging that into a systematic awareness of the reality of class society and of a popular collective will to action.

How we respond to events like 9/11, the crisis in Syria and so on requires a world outlook; but this doesn’t necessarily develop organically in isolated individuals. For Gramsci there must be an active force working to develop it in both theory and practice. If you like, the creation of a collective which can disseminate revolutionary ideas, strategy and tactics linking in with and incorporating networks of resistance. A collective which can learn from them, engage with them and fight with them.

The party Gramsci had built prior to his arrest and incarceration was a Leninist one, which combined rigorous theoretical and organisational discipline with tactical flexibility. From Lenin, he took and adopted the Russian’s key strategic gift to the Western working class – the united front – and his Prison Notebooks are, in large part, a polemical defence of this outlook.

From Communiqué

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.