Chris Walsh explores Antonio Gramsci as a Leninist, the originality of his thinking and the relevance of Gramsci today
The legacy of Antonio Gramsci is one of the most fiercely contested in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci’s lineage is claimed by myriad schools of thought for innumerable theoretical purposes, both within and out with Marxism.
There is scarcely a social science that hasn’t incorporated Gramsci’s key concepts into its literature: often presenting the Italian as an ‘acceptable’ Marxist and almost never confronting the possibility that he was a thinker and activist of the same political ilk as Lenin. In the history of Western Marxism, perhaps the major debate of the last fifty years has been around the question of whether Gramsci’s politics were a continuation of, or a break from, the Leninist tradition.
The major task of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks was to begin to articulate a revolutionary strategy for socialists operating in the advanced capitalist West where the conditions were fundamentally different from those in absolutist Russia. To engage in such a project is enough, for some, to draw a distinction between Gramsci’s politics and Lenin’s. However, this is a shallow conclusion to reach; since in the early 1920s, no one was more acutely aware as Lenin that a different revolutionary strategy would be necessary for the West.
In the 1970s, a new wave of theory which relied heavily on a (mis)reading of Gramsci began to emerge from within the Communist Parties of Europe. This loose variety of perspectives became known collectively as Eurocommunism: centred on the idea that Gramsci’s concept of ‘War of Position’ sanctioned a reformist road to socialism; the Communist Parties that adhered to this new perspective began to see electoral work as their political priority and quickly began to discount much of the politics of their Leninist heritage.
In Britain, Eurocommunism was championed by the Marxism Today journal, headed up by writers like Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall. Such figures had good reason to detach Gramsci from the Leninist tradition: they wanted to drive a theoretical wedge between themselves and the Stalinist USSR’s ‘cult of Lenin’; they were deeply pessimistic from decades of defeats for the hard-left and wanted to articulate a new socialist strategy which jettisoned the unmarketable old verities of their failed Marxism-Leninism, like ‘The Dictatorship of The Proletariat’. Gramsci, they thought, was their ticket to such drastic revision and they purposefully tried to distance his thought from that of Lenin. These were, of course, politically motivated men. Their own conclusions were neither impartial nor strictly scholarly but dictated by their own specific agenda of radical left-wing reorientation and renewal, in a time of deep crisis for the left.
It is important here to clarify some, often ignored but crucial, points. Firstly, the concept which has become synonymous with Gramscian thought, ‘hegemony’, was not an original concept of Gramsci’s, but one that he learned from Lenin and was widely used by leading theorists of both the Second and Third International. Gramsci’s use of the term is not a departure from, nor contradictory to, the Russian’s usage but is in fact a continuation and development of the same concept.
Secondly, although it has been popular for decades to characterise Gramsci’s hegemony as an alternative strategy to the increasingly unfashionable concept of The Dictatorship of The Proletariat, Gramsci never intended it thus; in fact the two concepts were, in the Italian’s mind, very much complementary. In fact, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks was an attempt to carry on Lenin’s legacy after his death.
Lenin and the west
As already mentioned, Lenin knew all too well that a different revolutionary strategy was required for the West. In 1921 he specifically outlined to the Russian communists the necessity of the theorisation of a strategy for Western workers which was suitable to their own conditions. He specifically regrets that the program set out at the Third Congress was scarcely comprehensible to the non-Russian mind:
At the Third Congress, in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it…Second, even if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And third, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out. (Lenin; ‘Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution: Report to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International’; Lenin’s Final Fight: 1922-23; p111)
The strength of the resolution was in its detail, specificity and ability to focus on the minutiae of organisational questions. Its weakness was that the specifics of the Russian social and economic conditions were exceptional and thus completely alien to the Western worker. Worse still is the fact that even after dedicated study of the Russian conditions leading to an understanding of the revolutionary organisation and practice of the Russian communists, this knowledge could become a fetter to the Western revolutionary if taken dogmatically since their own road to workers revolution would be so radically different to that of the Bolsheviks. This led Lenin to lament that “We have not learned how to present our Russian experience to foreigners.”
In order to rectify the oversights from the previous congress, he stressed to his compatriots that, “We Russians must also find ways and means of explaining the principles of this resolution to the foreigners. Unless we do that, it will be absolutely impossible for them to carry it out.”
The key task for the Communist International at this point was to ‘translate’ the Russian experience into the many vernaculars of the European workers. No two states have identical form or conditions, and certainly the Russian situation was particularly far removed from those of the more advanced capitalisms in Europe.
War of manouvere & war of position
One of Gramsci’s greatest contributions to revolutionary Marxism was his formulation of the dual strategies of War of Manouvere and War of Position. The former, as carried out by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917, was conceived as an appropriate strategy for socialists operating within societies where capitalism was still underdeveloped.
It involved an insurrectionary advance upon the state which is only possible when the ruling class within society maintain their superiority to the subaltern classes by sheer force, with little or no acceptance of their superiority from the masses. In such a situation, the subordinate classes do not consent to the class leadership of the bourgeoisie but are forced into acquiescence by the vast apparatuses of state violence, “special bodies of armed men, prisons, etc.” as Lenin outlined in The State and Revolution.
The War of Position, on the other hand, is a more patient and protracted strategy. This involves not just an attack upon the bastions of state power, but a lengthy period building up to this moment in which class alliances are forged and ideological leadership amongst the subaltern classes is strived for. Gramsci explains the differing conditions that demand each respective strategy:
In the East, the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The state was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements. Needless to say, the configuration of the state varied from state to state, which is precisely why an accurate reconnaissance on a national scale was needed. (Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume III; trans. Buttigieg; p169)
In this particular passage Gramsci identifies the state as being the fortress surrounding civil society. At other times he presents the converse, that civil society protects the state. There is no ultimate truth regarding the formulation of advanced capitalist states since “the configuration of the state varied from state to state”. The key point to note is that in the West there was a far more mature relationship between the state and civil society.
The state in the advanced capitalist West ensures the continuation of the domination of the capitalist class through a far more complex method of governance than the brute coercion of the underdeveloped Eastern state. There is a far more effective deployment of a combination of both coercion and consent. The more advanced that the capitalist state becomes, it utilises less and less force and becomes increasingly reliant on gaining consent from the masses to maintain the hierarchical status quo.
It is important to note at this point that the population is by no means duped into such an arrangement. The ideology of the ruling class purposefully appeals to certain needs, desires or fears that are actually held by the subaltern classes. These appeals are made upon different issues at different historical points and are obviously dictated by the specific conditions in any given society.
They can be anything from: the restoration of law and order/domestic security; national security; concerns around the size of the state apparatus; anger at ‘benefits culture’, appeals to fairness. All of these were deployed in Margaret Thatcher’s political project. All of these fears were stoked by Thatcher and her allies, predominantly through the role of the media in endorsing them wholeheartedly and giving little or no platform to any voice of dissent.
When the ruling class ideology becomes so widely accepted that the oppressed classes are willing to subscribe to it; when alternatives cannot be found, or if they exist but can’t gain any traction; this is when the ruling ideology becomes, what Gramsci called, ‘common sense’. This ideological shift in society becomes so stable that even the following political administrations seemingly have to subscribe to it. This is when a political project becomes truly hegemonic. This is what was achieved by the radical project of Thatcherism, so that the next Labour government after Thatcher’s reign completely embraced and continued her neo-liberal project.
The integral state
In the traditional Marxist duality of state and civil society; the ideological apparatuses such as the media, schools, universities, the family etc. are considered to be institutions of civil society. Gramsci recognized that in advanced capitalist society, such an assignment is not completely accurate. Civil society and the state become so inextricably linked that both must be tackled concurrently.
If we consider the influence that powerful figures in society can have upon the state and vice versa: whether it be wealthy donors to political parties having a say in policy or decision making; or media tycoons who have such a vast influence upon the population that they play a decisive role in who is elected to office; it is clear that the power in society does not simply lie within the state proper.
This is why Gramsci formulated the concept of the ‘integral state’. In this formulation, the state and civil society are not two distinct entities but two component parts of the same organism. There is a dialectical relationship between the two parts so that the capacities of the state to act are always dependant upon the balance of class and social forces, and the role of actors, within civil society.
It is a common misinterpretation of Gramsci that the War of Position is fought within civil society, and once hegemony is ensured, the state lies unprotected for the workers to lay hold of. When we consider the concept of the ‘integral state’ it becomes obvious that this is incorrect. The integral state is everything; one unitary ‘state-form’ that encompasses both civil and political society. The state proper and civil society prop each other up in a symbiotic fashion.
A working class revolutionary movement must attack both at once. The strategy of the united front must be in constant deployment. The oppressed must be organised and drawn into constant and increasing struggle with the state and the ruling class. This must be given organisational form in the shape of new workers institutions and revolutionaries must always strive to ensconce politics into them, continually raising the consciousness and organisation of struggle in a dialectical interaction.
Civil hegemony = war of position = united front
We must understand that Gramsci’s conception of hegemony cannot be comprehended in isolation from his other major prison researches. We are offered the equation: ‘Civil Hegemony = War of Position = United Front.’
The United Front is the strategy implemented in order to unite the subordinate classes in conflict with the state; Civil hegemony (the starting point of, and always progressing towards, political hegemony) is the leadership of the oppressed classes on the terrain of civil society; and War of Position is the steady, incremental advance of the proletarian-led alliance of the oppressed to subordinate the dominant hegemony, and when possible, manouvere for control of the apparatuses of the state.
Each component part of this formulation is essential to the unity of the strategic whole. If any one is discounted, the strategy is rendered unintelligible and certainly un-workable. Leadership (hegemony) can only be established within civil society once the various oppressed classes have forged some form of allegiance (through the United Front) with the proletarian vanguard that will lead the struggle against the ruling class in the fields of both civil and political society. I will argue, and seek to demonstrate through a close textual analysis, that each component part of the equation owes a great deal to the influence of Lenin.
Lenin’s hegemony (leadership)
As we have already noted, Gramsci adopted his concept of hegemony from Lenin. We should also remember at this point that hegemony for Gramsci, in any given pre-revolutionary period, simply means leadership of the subaltern classes, brought together in struggle by the United Front. Although Lenin doesn’t often use the word hegemony, this has often mistakenly been interpreted as an absence or irrelevance of the concept from his discourse. As Buci-Glucksmann puts it:
The majority of commentators, anxious to stress the decisive contribution made by Gramsci, or more subtly, to oppose Gramsci to Lenin, end up by underestimating the place of hegemony in Lenin’s work and remaining almost completely silent on the Third International. (Buci-Glucksmann, Christine; Gramsci and The State; p174)
However, it is not difficult to find examples of the concept in his writings from long before 1917. Let us consider the following passages from Two Tactics of Social Democracy, written in 1905:
All the usual, regular and current work of all organizations and groups of our Party, the work of propaganda, agitation and organisation, is directed towards strengthening and expanding the ties with the masses. (Lenin; Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in The Democratic Revolution, Lenin: Selected Works; p51)
In a word, to avoid finding itself with its hands tied in the struggle against the inconsistent bourgeois democracy the proletariat must be class-conscious and strong enough to rouse the peasantry to revolutionary consciousness, guide its assault, and thereby independently pursue the line of consistent proletarian democratism. (Lenin; Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in The Democratic Revolution, Lenin: Selected Works; p85)
As early as 1905 Lenin recognises that class alliances must be made with the other subaltern classes in order to engage in effective revolutionary struggle. This is especially true in countries where the proletariat is not quantitatively the largest class.
As well as forging this alliance of the oppressed, the proletariat must establish the trust and loyalty of the other component classes and lead and dictate the form of their revolutionary activities (just as in Gramsci’s formulations). At this conjuncture, Lenin identifies the united front as a tactic, suitable to the specific period, rather than a strategy. One could easily argue that it was suitable for Russia in 1905 but quite ill-fitting to the conditions in which Gramsci operated in Italy.
However, the United Front eventually establishes a more permanent role in Lenin’s thought. It wasn’t until much later, specifically at the beginning of the Third International that the united front was recognized as a strategy for the age rather than merely a specific manouvere. I will return to, and address, this point later when dealing with the theory and practice of the ‘last Lenin’ and its significance to Gramsci.
Lenin’s overall strategy for proletarian revolution was evidently vindicated in October 1917. After the October Revolution, the concept of hegemony – class leadership of the oppressed – begins to appear far more frequently in Lenin’s writings, and it appears in a more developed form. In 1918, in The State and Revolution, we read:
Only the proletariat – by virtue of the economic role it plays in large-scale production – is capable of being the leader of all the working and exploited people, whom the bourgeoisie exploit, oppress and crush, often not less but more than they do the proletarians, but who are incapable of waging an independent struggle for their emancipation. (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; p281)
No other class other than that of workers has been prepared by its position in the mode of production for such a role; No other class is organized through labour in such large groupings and social conditions; No other class has the skills to continue production and lay the foundations for the new socialist society in the eventuality of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.
The dictatorship of the proletariat (domination)
At this point, after the revolutionary deposition of the capitalist class, Lenin’s ‘hegemony’ acquires another vital aspect to its overall meaning, one that we also find in the writings of Antonio Gramsci; namely, domination.
Now we see hegemony as necessary not just in order to lead the oppressed classes in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie; but also as essential to the proletariat to maintain its class domination and quell the “desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie”.
This period in which the proletariat assumes the position of society’s ruling class is by no means the completion of the workers’ revolution. It is simply the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The workers revolution is only complete when all classes have been abolished from society.
Now, the distinction, falsely forged in desperation by the Eurocommunists and reformists of all shades, of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and Lenin’s understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat is exposed to all as wholly inaccurate.
Simply put, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the mobilization of “a ‘special coercive force’ for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat” (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; p275). In other words, Gramsci’s understanding of the ‘domination’ aspect of hegemony is identical to Lenin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
In the writings of both Lenin and Gramsci, the proletarian-led, revolutionary alliance of the exploited remained essential before, during and after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.
This working class leadership was coupled with a post-insurrectionary working class domination and suppression of the deposed capitalist class and the counter-revolutionary forces it would mobilise in a furious attempt to reclaim its lost superiority. In Gramsci’s first notebook he writes:
A class is dominant in two ways, namely it is “leading” and “dominant.” It leads the allied classes, it dominates the opposing classes. Therefore, a class can (and must) “lead” even before assuming power; when it is in power it becomes dominant, but it also continues to ‘lead’. (Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume I; trans. Buttigieg; p136)
Compare this with Lenin’s outline of the strategic necessities of the revolutionary process, again written in 1918:
In every socialist revolution, however – and consequently in the socialist revolution in Russia which we began on October 25, 1917 – the principal task of the proletariat, and of the poor peasants which it leads, is the positive or constructive work of setting up an extremely intricate and delicate system of new organizational relationships extending to the planned production and distribution of the goods required for the existence of tens of millions of people. Such a revolution can be successfully carried out only if the majority of the population, and primarily the majority of the working people, engage in independent creative work as makers of history. Only if the proletariat and the poor peasants display sufficient class-consciousness, devotion to principle, self-sacrifice and perseverance, will the victory of the socialist revolution be assured. (Lenin; The Immediate Tasks of The Soviet Government; Lenin: Selected Works; p402)
The overthrow of the bourgeoisie does not herald the birth of a new socialist society; it is merely the transitory stage of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
The socialist revolution is only complete when classes have been eliminated from society and thus the state, whose very raison d’être is the suppression of the subordinate classes to ensure the continued superiority of the dominant, is rendered superfluous. The socialist revolution is only completed when a new, completely unprecedented state-form comes into being: the workers state; “which is no longer really a state” (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Essential Works of Lenin; p301).
The alliances forged before the insurrectionary movement must be maintained and continue to be led by the workers in order to construct the new social and economic conditions for socialism and allow the revolutionary process to progress beyond the temporary moment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Lenin writes in 1919:
Classes have remained, but in the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat every class has undergone a change, and the relations between the classes have also changed. The class struggle does not disappear under the dictatorship of the proletariat; it merely assumes different forms. (Lenin; Economics and Politics in The Era of The Dictatorship of the Proletariat; Lenin: Selected Works; p503)
Although Lenin and Gramsci use different language, it is evident that they are describing the same organisational, revolutionary practice. Just as the relative absence of the actual word ‘hegemony’ in Lenin doesn’t denote an omission of the concept; neither does Gramsci’s seldom use of the phrase, ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ in the Prison Notebooks signify its absence from his thought.
The ‘Last Lenin’
The most significant themes of Gramsci’s carceral writings: Hegemony, War of Position and the United Front; as we have seen, were all taken directly from Lenin.
Gramsci’s biographer, Alastair Davidson remarks that, “Leninism at its end-point and Gramscianism at its beginnings are closely linked.” (Davidson, Alastair; Gramsci & Lenin: 1917-1922; The Socialist Register, 1974; p146)
This does not go far enough. Gramsci’s prison writings carry Lenin’s theoretical baton after the Russian’s death. They seek to articulate his final strategic thoughts in a period when Leninism had been crudely distorted and Lenin’s true legacy was fiercely contested, if not always openly, within the Communist International.
Gramsci formulated his ideas at the same time as the Comintern was committed to the strategic folly of the Third Period and the abandonment of the United Front.
In Lenin’s final years, he realised that the United Front was no longer merely a conjunctural manouvere but in fact the only suitable strategy for the age. Gramsci took the minority position of being faithful to this Lenin. Peter Thomas writes:
The struggle for ‘civil and political hegemony’, the attempt to construct a proletarian hegemonic apparatus, was Gramsci’s attempt to remain faithful to Lenin’s last will and testament and to deploy the qualitative advance in the development of the concept of hegemony in Western conditions. Far from leading away from the classical thesis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Gramscian theory of proletarian hegemony posits itself as its necessary ‘complement’. War of Position is now not only the ‘only possible’ strategy in the West; as an application of the mass class-based politics of the united front, it has become the sine qua non of a revolutionary politics that wants to produce a politics ‘of a very different type’ on an international scale. (Thomas, Peter D; The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism; p239)
In light of the evidence, there can be absolutely no question of whether or not Gramsci was a Leninist. His Leninism was far richer and more dynamic than any variant professed by his contemporaries.
By crudely cleaving Gramsci from the Leninist tradition, the Eurocommunists and their ancestors present a picture of the man and his theory which is not only historically inaccurate, but opportunistically incomplete. We must reclaim his legacy from its wide-ranging abuse in political discourse and just about every other field of social science.
In the 21st century when much of the left have abandoned Lenin for being antiquated and outmoded, we must look to Gramsci in order to help define what Leninism means today and its relevance to revolutionary struggle in our age.
The Leninist left’s dreary re-reading of The State and Revolution and What Is To Be Done?, as if a solution to the many crises that confront us today will magically materialise from within the text, will provide little insight into the questions and tasks presented by the ever advancing and transforming (and increasingly crisis-ridden) capitalism of today.
Dogmatism is our enemy within. Gramsci’s dynamic Marxism can aid in undermining the dogma that silently retards us. The revolutionary left needs Gramsci; now more than ever.
More articles from this author
- Wages, prices and profits: What's driving the cost of living crisis? - video
- Nato, Ukraine and the new world disorder: Against imperialism east and west - video
- Confronting crisis: Next steps for the left - video
- Them against us: which side are you on?
- 'The fight never stops': GMB's arrested trade unionists remain defiant
- We need a wage revolution - Counterfire Freesheet June 2022
- A strategy for struggle: Trade unions and the rank and file - video