Gramsci: Between Marxism and Idealism

This edition of Revolutionary Perspectives goes to press at the same time as our English translation of Onorato Damen’s book Gramsci between Marxism and Idealism published after his death in 1979 (see or footnote 8 for how to purchase). By way of a taster we present an obituary which we translated from Prometeo.

Submitted by Internationali… on August 14, 2019

This was the Prometeo published in Belgium between 1928 and 1938 as the “Journal of the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy”. This obituary from the Italian Left in exile appeared shortly after Gramsci’s death on April 27, 1937, and its tone is remarkably in tune with the attitude of Damen (who was himself then a prisoner of Mussolini) in his book on Gramsci.

What will strike any reader who knows something of Gramsci’s role in the “bolshevisation” of the Communist Party of Italy is the lack of bitterness in its assessment of Gramsci’s work. The Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) was finally founded by the Left under Amadeo Bordiga at Livorno in 1921. At this founding Congress Gramsci said nothing. His own past support for Mussolini’s imperialist interventionist position in the First World War, as well as his philosophical dabblings in the bourgeois ideas of Croce, Sorel and Bergson, hardly made him equipped to be the leader of a new revolutionary Party. Nevertheless it is repeatedly asserted by Stalinists and Social Democrats, who all claim something from the Gramsci legacy that he was the founder of the PCd’I.1

Gramsci, in fact, initially admired and deferred to Bordiga and his leadership of the Party, and they would remain on friendly personal terms right up until Gramsci’s death. Their political relationship changed when Gramsci was chosen as a representative of the Party in Russia in 1922. He spent two and half years in Moscow where he was groomed to replace the Left in the leadership of the Italian Party. The Comintern (or rather the Russian Party in the Comintern which was now virtually the same thing) were appalled that the Italian Party refused to apply the united front and enter into an alliance with the same Socialist Parties who they had only just split from less than a year before. The Left were willing enough for workers in the Communist and Socialist Parties to work together in strikes etc. but not to make a political deal with the Socialist leaders who were convinced supporters of the capitalist order and had been condemned as such by the Rome Theses at the Second Congress of the PCd’I.

It was Gramsci acting for the Comintern (along with Togliatti) who would take advantage of Bordiga’s arrest by Mussolini in February 1923 to impose a new leadership on the Party. Imposing “Centrist”2 politics and “bolshevising” the PCd’I would take some time longer since the Party membership and most of the local secretaries remained supporters of the Left. This was brought home to Gramsci at the clandestine Como Conference (May 1924) where the rank and file gave the Left ten votes for every one garnered by the new Central Committee headed by Gramsci.

With “bolshevisation” declared as the official policy of the Comintern at its Fifth Congress the Gramsci leadership increased its manoeuvres. From October 1924 onwards, starting with Bordiga in Naples, the various party secretaries who were known supporters of the Left were one by one removed from office. In the face of this supporters of the Left formed the Committee of Intesa3 , and organised a meeting with a Bordiga who was now already lapsing into passivity, in Naples in the spring of 1925. As we wrote in our introduction to the pamphlet on the Platform of the Committee of Intesa4 the meeting

“ ... attracted the most qualified representatives of the party’s organisational apparatus” (Damen) — indicating that the main body of the Party was still with the Left. Gramsci had a quick remedy to alter that:

"Few people know that soon afterwards Gramsci summoned the party functionaries who had participated in the Naples meeting and presented them with the typical administrative dilemma — either you defend and support the policies of the Party which pays you or you will be dismissed."

And the consequence of this?

"...the shameful capitulation of them all, we say all, as if the militancy of a revolutionary in his class party had in an instant been turned into a commodity to haggle over." (Damen, Gramsci tra marxismo ed idealism, p.111.)

A similar manoeuvre was pulled off at the Lyons Congress in 1926 where the Theses of Gramsci and Togliatti were opposed by the Theses of the Left drafted by Bordiga. It was held in France so most of the delegates could not get out of Italy but, no matter, their votes were added to those of the Central Committee for its version of the Theses. Little wonder that they thus received 90.8% of the votes. And by this time the Committee of Intesa had been forced to disband under orders from the Comintern with which Bordiga complied. The Executive Committee also issued secret orders that any member of the Left who visited any local federation was to be searched and their material confiscated and sent to the Executive of the PCd’I. Damen was cited by name in this circular.

Bordiga’s last act of defiance was his magnificent speech, against Stalin and the idea that the Russian Party was above the scrutiny of the International, at the VIth Enlarged Executive in Moscow in 1926.5 In the same year Gramsci, despite his supposed parliamentary immunity was arrested and initially sent to the island of Ustica where Damen was already held. They were soon to be joined by Bordiga but this only lasted a few weeks before they were all moved to different locations. Gramsci had begun his eleven years in prison and the running of the PCd’I was now taken over by Togliatti from Moscow. Under him both Damen (1929) and Bordiga (1930) were expelled from the Party they had founded.

Gramsci had already developed a deep aversion to the “bureaucrat” Togliatti and seems to have begun to understand the role he had played in the development of the counter-revolution in Italy. It appears that he broke with Togliatti after the latter wanted to take more drastic measures against the Left of the PCd’I whilst Gramsci recognised that they were still a real force, and the aim should be to win them over and re-unite the Party. His faith in the Communist International also began to falter when, in the same year, it became clear that Stalin had won in the power struggle in the Russian Party, and had Zinoviev expelled as head of the Communist International.6

However Gramsci never publicly went against the Communist Party of Italy or the International, and devoted his Prison Notebooks largely to cultural and historical issues (although apparently two of them are “missing”). In the five years to 1928 the only public criticism Gramsci ever made of the USSR was when its ambassador invited Mussolini to dinner during the Matteotti crisis! As his life ebbed away the Fascists released him from prison, but he eventually opted not to go to Russia. He wrote to his wife (who remained there with their two sons) that he intended to retire to Sardinia, a decision he tried to keep from the Comintern. He also vainly tried to prevent Togliatti from claiming to be his heir. His final tragedy was that the Stalinists, and others7 , used his confused writings (as the Prometeo obituary predicted) to try to dress up their own reformism as a more human form of Marxism. He did not even reach Sardinia but died in Rome only a few days after his release. These largely forgotten or unknown facts perhaps account for why the Communist Left regarded him on his death not so much as the agent of “bolshevisation” of the PCd’I but as someone who, in their words, had been “a captive of the class enemy”.

In Gramsci between Marxism and Idealism Damen does not dwell on this sorry history. Instead he concentrates his analysis on explaining the flaws in Gramsci’s theoretical preoccupations, but to understand these it will be necessary to read the book to which the obituary below gives some tantalising pointers.8

Obituary for Antonio Gramsci

From Prometeo Number 145, 30 May 1937

Now that he is dead, assassinated by Fascism9 , it is Gramsci’s turn to suffer the fate of many before him. He is being murdered again through the words of his own apostles. The centrist press and the papers of the Popular Front have thrown themselves onto his corpse and are hoping to change the nature of his thought and work, by distorting it for their own counter-revolutionary ends.

We have already expressed our judgment on Gramsci, and did so years ago when the centrists first staged a campaign for the release of the “head” of the Italian proletariat. This campaign dragged on until it was clear that Gramsci had been delivered both from prison and from the complete ignominy reached by the degeneration of the current whose greatest inspiration he had been. A captive of the class enemy, he had slowly died in a clinic to which he had been transported when his days were already numbered, after 11 years of unheard-of mental and physical torture. We have no wish to change our judgment. We maintained then, as we do now, that the only proletarian way to commemorate the departed is to denounce his errors and mistakes, the negative and erroneous parts of his work, so that these do not obscure the clear-sighted and durable part of his activity, which becomes integral to the proletariat’s inheritance in tomorrow’s struggle for emancipation. And there is no shortage of faults, misunderstandings and weaknesses in Gramsci’s work. This is due to his social origin and the period in which he joined the Italian workers’ movement.

An intellectual — he studied philosophy at Turin — he suffered the influence of that idealist philosophy which led his spiritual brother and fellow victim of Fascism, Gobetti10 , towards the utopia of a rejuvenated and “revolutionary” liberalism. Politically, he suffered the primordial influence, as did many others, of Salvemini’s11 revisionism which saw socialism overcoming its crisis in the solution of the “Southern problem”. And Gramsci, a Sardinian by birth, was a supporter of federalism which he fought for even within the ranks of the party.

As part of the generation which came to the movement through the war (Gramsci was at first an interventionist, as Tasca12 reminds us, who was shaken by the October revolution without understanding its full significance) he sought to link himself more closely with the working class, which he found easy in Turin, the true “proletarian capital” of Italy.

But he was never a leader of the Italian proletariat, nor did he know how to become such. His physical condition also affected his will and decisiveness, which are indispensable for a leader. And, in fact, from 1921 to 1923 he submitted to the influence of Bordiga’s “personality” and from 1923 to 1926 to that of the Comintern’s leaders, “following Lenin”.

A “leader” for us is one who expresses the aspirations and interests of the working class in a given historical phase. Bordiga was the Italian proletariat’s “leader” after the war precisely because he understood, first of all, how to affirm the need for a class party to lead the proletariat to victory.

For communists, the word “leader” means a role played in a given stage of the proletariat’s struggle for its emancipation, not a qualification for life. And even Bordiga was not able to be the “leader” of the Italian revolution. But this was in 1919-23 and Gramsci, even later, in 1924 at the time of the Matteotti crisis, was unable to take up anything beyond a position which did not correspond to the needs of the hour, namely his “Anti-parliament”.

Despite being in Turin, objectively the most favourable place — where we, the “abstentionists” held a majority — Gramsci’s understanding of the need for the Party did not come easily, and this did not happen until the middle of 1920. Bordiga already understood this in early 1919 although he was in Naples, objectively the least favourable place. This delay was fatal to the revolution in Italy.

Once the PCd’I was founded in 1921, Gramsci was on Bordiga’s side and did not associate himself with the mostly hidden opposition of Bombacci or Tasca.

It was only later in Moscow, at the end of 1923 and the beginning of 1924, that Gramsci became the “creator” of Italian centrism which formed a bloc with Tasca’s right (which was also born in Moscow) and gave the Italian Party, whilst its founders were in jail, the orientation which made it one of the pawns of the active counter-revolution.

And the “habitually indecisive” Togliatti (as Gramsci himself, characterised him) this time decided to become the “leader” of the new traitors after the Gramscis, the Terracinis and the Scoccimarros had fallen into the clutches of Fascism.

And this we can explain. It was no accident that Grieco, the “deputy leader”, wrote in Stato Operaio concerning Togliatti that “his aversion to Bordiga and Bordigism had always been profound, I’d say almost physical”.13 This aversion to “Bordigism’ is, in fact, hatred of the proletariat’s class struggle.

We firmly maintain that Gramsci could perhaps have re-joined the proletarian revolution after a complete recognition of his past errors, a necessary step in proletarian rehabilitation. Serrati, for example, had done this after the setbacks of 1920. Gramsci’s letter of January 1924, quoted by Tasca, does not contain a confession of the errors committed by Ordine Nuovo in 1919-20 in failing to fight for the immediate creation of the Party. We “abstentionists” however, fought for this from 1919, although this fundamental position is often forgotten when the entirely contingent tactic of electoral abstentionism is being over-stressed.

But weren’t there criticisms of the politics of the centrists, when they were initiating their “anti-Trotskyist” campaign, in Gramsci’s letter of October 1926 to the Comintern? These were the only criticisms that the Gramscis, the Terracinis and the Scoccimarros – the original Italian centrists – were to make while it fell to their epigones – the Togliattis, the Griecos and the Di Vittorios – to prostitute themselves before Stalin, the helmsman of betrayal.

In October, Gramsci was arrested, and the year after he was condemned to 20 years. His martyrdom had begun.

To conclude, serious as Gramsci’s errors were, he atoned for them, and in plenty, through his slow 11-year martyrdom. And Tasca, who, in the columns of Giustizia e Liberta and Nuovo Avanti! has tried to exploit the deceased to defend his own inveterate opportunism could, since he possesses a copy, publish Gramsci’s letter in which, just after Livorno, he rejected Moscow’s suggestion of treacherously attempting to eliminate Bordiga from the leadership of the Party which he had founded, saying that he would not hear of such a manoeuvre.

This would be a worthy commemoration of Gramsci.

  • 1For example, Wikipedia gives either an ambiguous version of the lie: “Gramsci would be a leader of the party from its inception but was subordinate to Bordiga, whose emphasis on discipline, centralism and purity of principles dominated the party’s programme until he lost the leadership in 1924.“ or a total lie (this is in the entry on Togliatti) “The PCd’I was formed by L’Ordine Nuovo group led by Gramsci and the “culturalist” faction led by Angelo Tasca.” In fact neither Tasca nor Togliatti were even present at the founding Congress.
  • 2“Centrism” was how the Italian Left characterised the policies of both Gramsci in Italy and the Comintern internationally as they retreated from the revolutionary positions of the first two congresses of the Communist International. Trying to forge mass parties at a time of class retreat involved them in the dubious manoeuvre of the united front with the social democrats. The Comintern was seen as centrist between a social democracy that had gone over to capitalism and a revolutionary revival of the working class. As such it was a label that would endure to describe the Stalinist counter-revolution right up until the Second World War.
  • 3“Comitato d’Intesa” can be translated several ways. Committee of Entente, of Alliance, of Understanding are all valid so we generally stick to the Italian original.
  • 4This is available as a pamphlet from our address (or website) at £4 (including UK postage).
  • 5This can be found at Our unacknowledged translation and introduction can also be found at at
  • 6See p.76 We are grateful to our comrade Michel Olivier for drawing this to our attention.
  • 7Gramsci’s ideas are dealt with at length in Damen’s book but for those looking for a shorter review of some of them can consult a review of his pre-prison writings
  • 8Available now for £7.50 (post free in the UK) from our address or via the Paypal button on
  • 9Gramsci, although technically immune from arrest as he was (like Damen) a parliamentary deputy, was arrested in 1926 and later sentenced to twenty years in prison. Suffering from several terrible illnesses he was denied adequate medical attention even though he spent the last 2 years of confinement in a clinic in Rome. Due for release on 21 April 1937 he died on 27 April.
  • 10Both Piero Gobetti and Gramsci studied under the idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce but Gobetti always remained a liberal. A leading anti-fascist he was beaten up like so many by Fascist thugs and died as a result in 1926.
  • 11In his youth Gramsci had supported Sardinian nationalism against socialism and for a time was influenced by the Puglian liberal republican (and leading anti-fascist) Gaetano Salvemini who argued that most of Italy’s problems stemmed from the poverty of the South of the country.
  • 12Angelo Tasca, along with Umberto Terracini and Palmiro Togliatti were part of the Ordine Nuovo group with Gramsci in Turin. Tasca though was always on the right of the PCd’I and sought to ally even with the most reactionary amongst the socialists. Expelled from the PCd’I by Togliatti in 1929 he ended up in France where he worked for the Vichy Government.
  • 13Palmiro Togliatti remained outside Italy until the Second World War ended. During that time he distinguished himself as a loyal Stalinist, especially in Spain where, under the name Ercole Ercoli, he was involved in the Stalinist crushing of revolutionary forces. He returned to Italy to get his followers to acquiesce in the restoration of the “democratic order” and thus prevent working class revolution in 1945.