Book Cover

Gramsci is claimed by many different left currents, but a new volume of his letters shows his commitment to revolutionary politics pursued through united mass action, argues Chris Nineham

A Great and Terrible World

Antonio Gramsci, A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters 1908-1926, ed. and trans. Derek Boothman, (Lawrence and Wishart 2014), 418pp.

The Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci is the most fashionable of Marxists. His work – particularly from the celebrated Prison Notebooks – is referenced in a huge range of academic disciplines and in support of a bewildering number of different political perspectives.

At the centre of all this interest is Gramsci’s stress on the importance of ‘hegemony’ – influence, or soft power – in movements for social change. One common interpretation has him focussing on ideological and cultural political practice; in Stuart Hall’s words ‘the historic struggle to create the forms of a new culture’,[1] and downplaying the importance of class struggle.

In another version, Gramsci is a champion of spontaneous struggle over party organisation, looking ‘to cultivate grassroots mechanisms of democracy, a revolution from below, which is distinguishable from a Leninist bias towards statism.’[2] In direct contradiction of this, the most influential take is Gramsci as advocate of working within the structures established by the dominant class, in what 1960s German Student leader Rudi Dutschke famously called ‘a long march through the institutions’. So his ideas were used to justify the Italian Communist Party’s shift from revolutionary perspectives towards the theory of the democratic road to socialism in the 1950s and 60s. Some are marshalling them today in defence of a gradualist parliamentary strategy for change in Europe within the institutions of the EU.

One thing these different Gramscis have in common is a clear contrast with the Leninist approach to revolution, which emerged from the experience of 1917 in Russia. Even some of his more radical admirers support the view that Gramsci distanced himself from Leninism on the grounds that the Russian experience was not applicable to Western societies. The argument goes that because the Tsarist state had limited roots in society, the seizure of power there could take place relatively suddenly and with minimal ideological preparation. The Leninist party-led model is then dismissed as impossibly crude and too focussed on force to be relevant for the complex, modern societies of the West. There is often the parallel assumption that Gramsci developed his concern with hegemony only after he was imprisoned by the fascist regime in 1926 and that he developed it as a critique of the failed strategy of the Communist International in Italy and elsewhere.

A more complex reality

As this collection of letters underlines, the reality is much more complex and much more interesting. The letters testify to the richness of Gramsci’s experience as an activist and leader during the tumultuous years of the revolutionary crisis from the World War One until 1926 when he was thrown into prison. If there was any doubt, they show his analytic skills were well developed before his prison years. They give us deeply moving insights into his difficult personal life, but they also shed fascinating light onto his political ideas and the course of his development. This runs counter to much of the received wisdom.

First, the letters reveal strong continuity in his thinking between his mature years as a revolutionary leader and his years of enforced passivity in prison. Many of the letters in the second half this volume are preoccupied precisely with the problems of creating a hegemonic movement, so the importance of revolutionaries building broad alliances with other social and political forces is put centre stage. From1924, the PCI under his leadership was pushing for fusion with the majority sections of the Socialist Party but also seeking united action of the whole left, the peasantry and bourgeois radicals against the fascists. In one letter he writes:

‘Our C[entral] C[ommittee]  has made a proposal to this party (the maximalist Socialists) and at the same time the Republican Party, to the Reformist Party and to the Sardinian Party to have a united front on the basis of ‘Down with the fascist monarchy! Land to the peasants, control of production to the workers to break the back of the landowners and the capitalists supporting fascism’ ‘(p.348).

This kind of approach was strengthening the left in general and the Communist Party in particular. A few months earlier he reported in a letter to his wife:

‘We’ve almost trebled our membership, the paper has grown by 120% as compared with three months ago, everyone is seeking out our literature; trade union organisations being rebuilt around our cells. The reception our propaganda has found among the peasantry is amazing. Our agrarian section has had 2000 membership cards printed for a national peasant’s defence association, but the province of Siena alone asked for 5,000’ (p.324).

The nature of the break

Second, it is true that Gramsci went through a political transformation in the twenties, but it took place a number of years before he went to prison. This was his break from the policy of revolutionary purity and isolationism that characterised the left of the PCI, led by Amadeo Bordiga, which dominated the organisation until Gramsci became leader.

Bordiga pursued a policy of abstention in elections, rejection of any fusion with the leftward moving elements of the Socialist Party, and a general attitude of waiting and watching till a revolutionary crisis erupted. Gramsci’s group in the PCI was initially allied to Bordiga’s left. As late as summer 1922 Gramsci was writing to Russian revolutionary Karl Radek rejecting any attempt at merger with the main Socialist party grouping around Serrati. Gramsci complains that Serrati ‘does not have one single worker of the masses around him, he says, just his own party fraction’ (p.111).

Gramsci had travelled a long way from there by the time of a letter of May 1923 in which he accepts that his own party the PCI had made ‘gross errors which have damaged us enormously … Three years experience has taught us, not only in Italy, how deeply rooted the traditions of social democracy are and how difficult it is to destroy the residues of the past through simple ideological polemics’ (p.158)

Russia and the world

Third, his understanding of the importance of these kind of strategic alliances was not developed in opposition to the Russian revolutionaries. It is often suggested that Gramsci’s politics represents a break with that of the Russian Communists or Bolsheviks, as they were called. The reality was the direct opposite. It was during Gramsci’s stay in Moscow that he began to develop a critique of ultra leftism. A recently published letter mentioned in the book shows that it was precisely in discussions with Lenin that Gramsci was convinced of the need to break from the ultra-lefts around Bordiga, and work to win over the majority sections of the Socialist Party (p.21). 

Throughout the letters Gramsci associates the advocacy of united-front activity with the International and particularly with the Russian leadership. This was not simply about the question of fusion with the Socialist Party. In a letter to the whole of the PCI leadership, Gramsci argues that ‘fusionism and anti – fusionism have constituted the “polemical terminology” of the discussion, not its essence’. The debate was really about ‘whether the PCI is able to lead a vast political campaign, in other words whether it is ideologically and organisationally equipped for decisive action’ (p.168).  

This isn’t to say that there are not important differences between the tasks of revolutionaries in countries like Russia and the more developed capitalist economies. Lenin himself was acutely aware of the danger of the mechanical application of the Bolshevik methods to different contexts. The point is that the notion of building broad hegemonic alliances was central to the Bolsheviks’ method. As the editor of this book points out, Gramsci’s adoption of the idea of a ‘Federal Republic of Workers and Peasants’ was ‘Gramsci’s adaptation to Italy of the Bolshevik programme for the countryside at the time’ (p.32)

The Modern Prince

Finally these letters illustrate Gramsci’s politics of hegemony were not developed in opposition to the idea of a leading revolutionary party, but were in fact dependent on it. Interestingly, Gramsci objects to Bordiga’s ultra-left model of the party, not just because it leads to isolation, but more insistently because of the passivity that flows from it. There is a widespread mentality of ‘waiting for orders’, he complains in a letter of November 1924, blaming ‘the ultra left conception that the P[arty] serves only for direct action, and while waiting for the great day, as a mass it has nothing to do but wait’ (p.332). In opposition to this Gramsci developed a conception of the Party not just as active, but ‘the result of a dialectical process in which there is the convergence of the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organisational and directive will of the centre’ and not as something ‘suspended in mid – air’ (p.226).

For Gramsci ideological influence – the development of hegemony – was inextricably tied to revolutionary organisation and activity. Alliances and joint work were essential. Moreover, a number of the letters here show Gramsci’s concern that the ability of such alliances to generate counter-hegemonic movements depended on an active struggle for influence within them. Gramsci insisted for example that the policy of fusion with the Maximalist section of the Socialist Party had to be combined with a political campaign to make sure that revolutionary ideas and practice prevailed. ‘We have to carry out vast, far reaching political activity, that, day after day, takes to pieces both the tradition and the organism that incarnates it’ (p.158). In general, successful ideological struggle depended on the networks of party organisation.

An activist party

With almost unimaginable determination, Gramsci turned his terrible years of incarceration into an opportunity to develop a rich and multi-layered analysis of the mechanisms of power, control and resistance in modern capitalist society. In prison, Gramsci had to be circumspect when he talked about strategic or organisational questions. But any close analysis of the notebooks[3] shows that the radical sweep of his reflections continue to depend on the kind of dialectical conception of party organisation that came out of his sharp break from ultra-leftism in 1923.

The view that ideas had to have an organisational embodiment in order to gain influence is a central theme of the Notebooks. Precisely in order to penetrate the mix of archaic and mystified ideas that overlay social reality, a clear and highly focused organisation is necessary.

Parties, Gramsci writes in the notebook on problems of philosophy and history, are ‘the crucibles where the unification of theory and practice, understood as a real historical process, takes place.’ Effective parties should not just reflect the consciousness of the mass like the British Labour Party, he says, but must bring together the most conscious individuals ‘for whom the conception implicit in human activity has already become to a certain degree a coherent and systematic ever-present awareness and a precise and decisive will.’[4]


[1] Hall, S, ‘Introductory essay: Reading Gramsci,’ in: Simon, R, Gramsci’s political thought (London 1991), pp.7-21.

[2] Morton A. D. Unravelling Gramsci (London 2007), p.207.

[3] See for example, Thomas, Peter D, The Gramscian Moment (London 2009)

[4] Gramsci, A, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, eds. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, (London 1971).

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.

Tagged under: