Gramscism or Marxism?

The following is our foreword (with additional footnotes) to the book Gramsci between Marxism and Idealism by Onorato Damen, which we translated and published last year. The book is still available to order, but you can now download the PDF of it for free HERE.

Submitted by Internationali… on October 8, 2020

Myths about Antonio Gramsci are endless. The biggest myth of all is that the hero of the factory occupation movement and founder of L’Ordine Nuovo was also the founder of the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) in 1921. On the basis of this myth, ideologues for the post-war reformist Italian Communist Party (PCI) used Gramscian theoretical notions and categories to justify ‘Euro-communism’ or the turn away from allegiance to the Russian bloc in a failed attempt to win electoral success. Yet, far from being confined to Italy or fading with the collapse of the USSR and disappearance of ‘Euro-communism’, Gramsci’s voluminous writings are now the basis of academic studies throughout the world. From linguistics through anthropology to politics, sociology and ‘subaltern studies’, Gramscian ideas on ‘hegemony’, ‘passive revolution’, the ‘modern Prince’, the ‘war of positions’, ‘philosophy of praxis’, are flourishing in the post-truth epoch which denies the existence of an objective social reality and reduces society to a collection of individuals. In the wake of the destruction of the industrial working class in the old capitalist heartlands all these ideas have been used to rationalise the reshaping of previously class-based political organisations like the Labour Party as well as contribute to new populist movements of the capitalist left, such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. No matter how the latter are dressed up, they share a common perspective: that a mass working class revolution is not possible and socialism will need to be brought about gradually through a series of manoeuvres and alliances within the existing political set-up supported by electoral support and even mass protests which aim for a role in the state, not to overthrow it.

In an earlier epoch – during the first phase of capitalism’s present accumulation crisis when the working class was stirred to resist the bosses’ attacks – it was another Gramsci who became something of an icon on capitalism’s left political scene. In the late 1960s and through the ‘70s it was the Gramsci of L’Ordine Nuovo, the mouthpiece of the factory occupations in Turin in 1920, who fired the enthusiasm of anarchists and Trotskyists alike as a spate of factory occupations and workers’ co-operatives appeared to suggest a way forward for the working class. Even before we were familiar with the tradition of the Italian Left, one of the first tasks of the Communist Workers’ Organisation, and its forerunner Revolutionary Perspectives (in the early 1970s)1 , was to counter the illusion that the working class can create communism by taking over the workplaces and simply ignore the state that is run by and for the capitalist class.

Round about the same time Onorato Damen2 , a contemporary of Gramsci who in his own words, “had shared the revolutionary times that were sparked by the fire of the October revolution” must have been thinking about the legacy of Gramsci, myth or otherwise, on the contemporary working class: the undermining of Marxism and blurring of ideas about what communism is and the nature of the political class struggle. When Mussolini’s regime collapsed and ‘Il duce’ was reduced to a Nazi puppet in chaotic northern Italy towards the end of 1943, Damen had been a key figure in reconstructing a revolutionary political organisation of the working class. The Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt) was formed on the understanding that state capitalist Russia had proved itself part of capitalism’s competing imperialist powers. It immediately came up against Palmiro Togliatti’s Italian Communist Party, established courtesy of US imperialism in return for its enrolling thousands of workers into the US-backed partisans to fight “German Nazis” for a “democratic Italy”. (Although he does not mention it, Damen himself had been targeted by Togliatti’s hit squads, managing to survive, unlike his comrades, Mario Acquaviva and Fausto Atti.3 ) By this time, of course, Gramsci was dead but it was principally his ideas and an increasingly mythical life story which the PCI used to rationalise its complete acceptance of the Italian national capitalist political and economic structure. (Indeed, Togliatti’s ‘Salerno Turn’, on his return to Italy from exile in Russia in 1944, committed the PCI to a government of national unity, support for ‘progressive democracy’ and abandonment of the ‘armed struggle for socialism’, which meant disarming PCI partisans. This suited Anglo-American imperialism because it prevented armed workers rejoining the class struggle in Turin, Milan, Genoa, where workers were once again occupying the factories and demanding something more than a return to the status quo ante.)

As the PCI settled into its post-war role as part of Italian capital’s political establishment, Damen was reflecting on its claim to be rooted in the same revolutionary tradition as the Marxist Communist Party of Italy that had been founded at Livorno in 1921 – a claim that increasingly boiled down to the role of Gramsci. The present volume is the product of Damen’s considerations on Gramsci’s shortcomings as an analytical and practical Marxist which he evidently wrote over a period of years. The structure is loose because he died before he completed it and the draft chapters were only discovered posthumously and eventually published in 1982. Some of the themes – such as the role of intellectuals, the influence of Croce on Gramsci’s view of history and so on – will be familiar to contemporary readers. “In Gramsci’s writing, classes: those tragic protagonists of history, their economic interests, the complexity of their social relations, the dynamics of their progress and their decline only appear in the shadows, while individuality, learning and the individual will predominate.” Damen’s perspective, though, always recognises that the advance of Marxist theory is not simply the product of a particularly clever individual’s abstract critique, but is part of an ongoing inter-relationship with the experience of the working class often made by someone who has changed their class allegiance. (“The same person who wrote Capital also wrote The Communist Manifesto and the Address to the First Workers’ International.”)

As for Gramsci’s early L’Ordine Nuovo period (from May 1919 through the autumn of 1920) and his enthusiasm for the mass factory occupations which he lauded as the incarnation of the proletarian dictatorship, Damen is typically generous about Gramsci’s illusions whilst having no sympathy with them. He ironically notes that the sight of a communist, Giovanni Parodi (member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI)’s abstentionist fraction, i.e. against participating in elections) sitting in the managing director’s chair whilst the “State’s structures remained intact and the industrialist Agnelli remained the owner of Fiat ... does not really amount to a hegemonic role for the industrial proletariat”. At the same time, however, he credits Gramsci with at least envisaging the factory committees as a function of the conquest of power by the working class – unlike the post-war PCI picture of workers’ control within the existing state set up. By the time of the Imola Convention at the end of November 1920 the L’Ordine Nuovo group had disintegrated but he generously asserts that the current attended this pre-Livorno political orientation meeting on equal terms. The now politically isolated Gramsci supported Amadeo Bordiga’s call for a fundamental break with social democratic 'maximalism', not the creation of a bridge between them by creating a 'communist-socialist' fraction. But Gramsci played no part during almost a week of debate at the Livorno Congress. Of the old Turin group only Terracini spoke from the platform: for the communist fraction, not for factory councils. (Other leading members of the group such as Tasca and Togliatti did not attend.) Formally the split with the PSI occurred over how strictly the discipline of the Communist International (the ‘Comintern’, founded 1919) should apply to the Italian party. More fundamentally, the issue being debated was what kind of organisation constituted a revolutionary party and the very nature of proletarian revolution. It was down to Bordiga to elaborate a revolutionary Marxist framework for the new communist party. By the time that party was formed, domination of the Comintern by an isolated Bolshevik Party was already presaging counter-revolution.

Damen does not go into how Gramsci became the Russians’ first choice as implement to redress the ‘split too far to the Left of Livorno’; how he stayed behind in Moscow after the 4th Comintern Congress in 1922 and eventually, in May 1924, returned to Italy to become effective leader of the Party after Bordiga had refused to retake up his role in the Executive once he was released from prison in 1923 – an Executive which now also included Togliatti, one of the four new members who owed their post to Moscow’s manoeuvrings. Nevertheless, the question of Gramsci’s role as ‘bolsheviser’ of the original Communist Party is a key concern for Damen, especially as his own personal and political life was affected by the disastrous results of the policy. The episode is critical to any revolutionary today who wants to understand how Gramsci’s weaknesses hastened and aided the process of counter-revolution and the demise of the PCd’I as a revolutionary party inside the working class. In fact the CWO has already published an English translation of the two chapters on Gramsci’s leadership of the PCd’I during the Matteotti crisis and the Platform of the Committee of Intesa, which put the case of the Left majority of the membership who were fighting a losing battle against the manipulations of Gramsci and his Moscow backers in the run-up to the Lyons Congress in 1926. (With an explanatory overview, this pamphlet is still available from the CWO address.4 )

This is hardly the stuff for academic circles or popular entertainment but it’s now possible to view a YouTube movie of the 44 days Gramsci spent in his first political exile on the island of Ustica after Mussolini’s clampdown on all political opposition towards the end of 1926.5 With Peppino Mazzotta, widely known as Fazio in the television series Inspector Montalbano, playing Antonio Gramsci, the movie is designed to be an ‘opinion shaper’. Portentous political discussions with fellow-exile Bordiga are skirted around. Damen, who was there before either of them and whose dwelling – a ‘Saracen tower’ known as Villa Damen – became the venue of the improvised party school, gets no mention. This is a trivial example but it is a sign of how Gramsci’s image is continually being shaped in line with the changing intellectual climate in a digital world. But, as Damen reminds us, “A class political movement never arises simply as part of a general intellectual climate” and “Every re-reading of Gramsci must be done critically, in the light of what is being done today in the name of his teaching.” Contemporary Gramscism is a global intellectual preoccupation whose net effect is to add to individual and political confusion. Revolutionaries of the 21st century need to know how to recognise false friends and redirect the desire for an end to capitalism onto internationalist working class ground. This overview, by someone who played a major part in keeping alive and reviving the internationalist Communist Left as a political current inside the working class, is a starting point. And nobody says it is an easy read!

July 2019

For a brief chronological history of the Italian Left, see Introductions to Our Positions, and many other articles on our website.