Gramsci in one of the nine pen and ink portraits made by Graziano Origa for the special insert "Gramsci 1891-1991" of L'Unione Sarda, 31 January 1991. Creative Commons.

On January 1, 1916, just about 10 years before Mussolini’s fascist regime imprisoned him, Italian communist Antonio Gramsci published a short article in Avanti! (Forward!)–the Italian Socialist Party’s (PSI) daily newspaper–about why he “hates” New Year’s Day. Gramsci thought it was a forced celebration and said he “would like every hour of my life to be new.” Gramsci connected this desire with socialism, writing, “I await socialism for this reason too.”

This short article gets circulated on the left every year, which is much less frequently than his key political contributions get thrown around. Indeed, Gramsci’s political writings have a long and contested life. Struggles over the legacy of Gramsci began before his body was cold. An original thinker, Gramsci made substantial contributions to Marxist theory–from inside the Marxist movement–including the concepts of hegemony and the organic intellectual.

More than simply an theorist, then, Gramsci was an active participant in the class struggles of his time. As a member and crucial figure within first the PSI (which he joined in 1913) and, later, as a leader of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI), Gramsci helped spur the occupation of factories in Turin, founded the PCI at Livorno, and represented the Italian section of the Communist International at several of its key meetings in the 1920s.

Capture by the fascist government of Mussolini put an end to his concrete involvement in the class struggle, but not to his theoretical contributions. The latter were especially concerning for the fascist government in the political showtrial, during which the state prosecutor said that, “For 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning.” Clearly the fascist prosecutors and judges understood that an idea can be a weapon for liberation as much as a rifle.

What was eventually published as the Prison Notebooks, scribbled in the incredibly desperate conditions of a fascist prison cell, are a testament to Gramsci’s strength of will. On April 27, 1937, that strength of will gave out. Gramsci died in prison; his Prison Notebooks unpublished, unfinished, and incomplete.

The incomplete nature of the Prison Notebooks represents a major problem for would-be scholars of Gramsci as well as revolutionaries looking to his work. As notebooks, they’re a compilation of essays–many of which are fragmentary–rather than a systematically developed line of thought. Moreover, Gramsci used deliberately difficult and non-Marxist terminology for the purpose of evading prison censors. All the troubles of translation and interpretation are exemplified in the confused application of Gramsci’s writing in practice. One of the great contradictions of Gramsci is that his thought has been consistently used to justify a rejection of revolutionary class struggle, despite having struggled in life so ferociously against reformist opportunism and ultra-left voluntarism as a long time member of the Communist Party.

This article is not an attempt to wrestle with the long legacy of debates over interpretations of Gramsci–some of which are more academic and others of which have had serious political consequences–but rather to serve as an introduction to Gramsci’s life, historical context, and key ideas for a new emerging layer of “organic intellectuals.” We’ll focus in particular on Gramsci’s involvement in the revolutionary struggles of Italy in order to situate two of his key concepts: hegemony and the organic intellectual. We begin, then, with the the historical context that informed these concepts.

The world in 1919

The years immediately after World War I and the 1917 October Revolution saw a major upsurge in the worldwide class struggle. At that time, Gramsci was living in the industrial center of Turin, famous for the gargantuan FIAT automobile plant. Turin was the industrial heart of Italy. Gramsci estimated that 75 percent of the working population were industrial workers. This massive concentration of workers was a potential powder keg for revolutionary activity. 

That powder keg exploded as a result of changes in both objective and subjective conditions wrought by the first world war. Economically, the war ruined Italian industry. Disruptions to the supply chain of key industrial materials, like coal and iron, were coupled with a dramatic drop in the profitability of heavy industries. Driven by the demands of the war, capitalists had invested massive sums in heavy industry but couldn’t find a market for those products after the war’s conclusion [1]. Italian industrialists attempted to push the burden of the crisis onto the working class by cutting wages, lengthening hours, and laying off workers. The hardships engendered by the war and postwar economic contraction were fertile ground for a sower of socialist ideas. 

This created an opportunity for a major shift in the subjective factor, the class consciousness of the proletariat. A revolutionary situation in Italy was maturing. The decisive lever in this growth of class consciousness was not the influence of the mass Socialist Party but rather the example of the Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia.

For decades the PSI and other parties of the 2nd International had adopted an anti-revolutionary and class collaborationist orientation. Supported by the upper strata of workers and the petty bourgeoisie, the 2nd International developed strategies and tactics based on economistic and deterministic interpretations of Marx, like those elaborated by Karl Kautsky and others. Parties of the 2nd International looked down on the independent activity of the masses and preached a doctrine of patience. Leaders critiqued party militants who called for action by returning to the tired refrain that objective conditions were not ideal for action [2]. Many Party leaders, unaccountable to their members and to their party programs, made common cause with bourgeois politicians to crush workers’ movements. 

The “Two Red Years,” L’Ordine Nuovo, and joining the Communist Party

In the context of national working-class militancy, international revolutionary fervor, and stagnation in the PSI, Gramsci and several other young revolutionary socialists formed a weekly newspaper in Turin called L’Ordine Nuovo, or The New Order, on May 1, 1919. They immediately set to work developing ties with workers in the factories, operating at first as a Bolshevik faction within the PSI.

Like so many others, Gramsci was inspired by the success of the Bolshevik revolution. He drew a sharp contrast between the activity of the PSI and the Bolsheviks. Critiquing the PSI’s neglect to developing the consciousness of the working class, he admired how the Bolsheviks came to gain the “trust and enthusiastic loyalty of the workers,” through, “the assiduous and incessant work of propaganda, of enlightenment, of education” [3].

Although the PSI prevented Gramsci from representing the Party, in Lenin’s “Theses on Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International,” he explicitly endorsed Gramsci’s new grouping. The 17th point put it bluntly:

“Concerning the Socialist Party of Italy, the Second Congress of the Third International considers that the criticism of that party and the practical proposals submitted to the National Council of the Socialist Party of Italy in the name of the party’s Turin section, as set forth in L’Ordine Nuovo of May 8, 1920, are in the main correct and are fully in keeping with the fundamental principles of the Third International” [4]

Lenin called on the PSI to purge non-communist leaders and members and correct its positions. Unable or unwilling to do this, the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was founded the very next year, in 1921. It was partly spurred by Gramsci’s organizational work and theory, and thus it was no surprise that Gramsci joined the PCI.

Gramsci contrasted the approach of the Bolsheviks to that of the opportunist PSI. The PSI conceived of the revolutionary process as a straight line. PSI leaders believed that the more workers were organized in trade unions and the more workers voted for their party, the closer the working class was to revolution. This approach failed to see the zigzags that any revolutionary process takes. In this zigzag course, with high and low tides of revolutionary struggle, the most important element is the consciousness and determination of the working class. To Gramsci, this was primarily an educational, ideological, and organizational question.

Taking Lenin’s advice to “find the particular link in the chain” that will advance the revolution, Gramsci and the editors of L’Ordine Nuovo considered the question of how to most effectively facilitate the education of the proletariat [5]. Given the high concentration of workers in factories and their level of organization, the concrete conditions of Turin made the creation of factory councils a historic possibility. In a July 1919 article for the paper titled, “The Conquest of the State,” Gramsci noted:

“The conviction has thus taken root amongst the masses that the proletarian state is embodied in a system of councils of workers, peasants and soldiers. There is not yet established a tactical conception which objectively assures the creation of this state” [6].

These workers councils were initially based on the Camera del Lavoro, or workers’ halls, and at first didn’t receive much support from the PSI or the mass of factory workers. There was also confusion among workers about the exact relationship between councils, the party, and the trade unions. Gramsci offered guidance on these tactical and theoretical questions in the pages of L’Ordine Nuovo.

According to Gramsci, trade unions were not suited to lead the revolutionary struggle because of their defensive nature. Since they existed to negotiate the price of labor power with employers in individual industries, he reasoned that the unions had a tendency towards reformism and particularism. The unions couldn’t embrace the totality of the proletariat as a class, an essential precondition for the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat. In “The Development of the Revolution,” he wrote:

“the organization of workers, which will exercise communist social power and in which will be embodied the dictatorship of the proletariat can only be a system of Councils elected in places of work and developed so that they participate in the process of industrial and agricultural production, coordinated and ranked locally and nationally in a such a way as to realize the unity of the working class over and above categories determined by the division of labour” [7].

The concept of the factory council was born. Initially set up to embrace workers in one factory, each factory would make up a municipal network of councils which would, in turn, make up regional and then a national network of workers’ institutions. The function of the councils was not simply to organize workers to oppose the bosses. Factory councils had the potential to be an embryonic proletarian state. According to Gramsci:

“Promoting the development and multiplication of workers’ and peasants’ councils, determining the connection and organic organization up to the national unit to be gathered in a general congress, developing an intense propaganda to conquer the majority, is the current task of communists” [8].

The parallels to the Soviet system are clear. Fundamentally, the councils were sites for the all-sided education of the working class. The education provided by the councils wasn’t envisioned in the narrow sense of Marxist study circles (although that was doubtlessly important), but as an education in the concrete activity of building a new type of power. The process of struggle would force a political response from the halls of power as well as from the reformist “socialists,” provided there were class-conscious communists present to explain events and teach the working class the necessity of taking its destiny into its own hands.

Gramsci’s articles in L’Ordine Nuovo, read by factory workers, further developed the factory councils. After the foundation of factory councils and factory commissars in the FIAT plant, Gramsci went so far as to write that it was “the first concrete realization of a thesis put forward by ‘Ordine Nuovo:’ the event, which has filled the souls of our worker comrades with enthusiasm and active fervour, belongs then, a little, also to us” [9]. In this exchange it’s clear to see the dialectical interrelationship between action and theory, spontaneity and consciousness. Workers made an initial movement against their objective conditions. Revolutionaries analyzed the situation and, utilizing the Marxist method, developed a strategy to lead the movement. They then brought it to the workers who took it as their line of march.

The “Red Tide” ebbs

There was a tremendous creative energy unleashed by the factory council movement during the postwar era in Europe. Yet it was stamped with, as Clara Zetkin remarked at the 1922 Congress of the Communist International, “an underlying historical contradiction: the objective conditions for proletarian revolution… are ripe – even overripe – but the subjective driving force, the understanding and determination of the broad masses underlying the revolutionary movement, lags behind” [10]. Zetkin was speaking here about Germany, but the assessment held true for Italy as well.

In August 1920, the owners of industry locked workers out of the factories. Their goal was to provoke a confrontation that would create a pretext for crushing the factory councils. The working class of Turin went on a general strike. The entire state of Piedmont was embroiled in a massive struggle with barricades raised across the city of Turin, factories occupied, and armed workers taking to the streets. Gramsci estimated that “the general strike of the last ten days spread throughout all of Piedmont, mobilizing around half a million industrial and agricultural workers, and thus involved about four million of the population” [11]. This major upsurge opened the door for revolutionary possibilities.

On the one hand, the military preparations for insurrection were almost nil. For example, the workers of the famous Turin FIAT factory had only 5,000 rounds of ammunition [11]. On the other hand, an escalation of struggle by calling for a nationwide general strike and calling for the organization of peasant committees in the south of Italy could hamstring the repressive apparatus of the state. A crossing of the revolutionary Rubicon has its own logic and in effect creates a new calculus and a new set of conditions for struggle.

What was the response of the PSI? To completely abrogate all authority and decision making power to Italy’s main trade union federation, the CGL. Instead of taking the reformist trade union leaders to task and exposing them before all of the working class, the PSI allowed the CGL leaders to dictate the negotiations with the government [13]. The CGL negotiated a vague, indefinite plan for “workers’ control of production” which was explicitly designed to help end the fluctuation of the currency and stabilize the capitalist state. Confused workers went back to work. The plan’s clause about creating workers’ control remained a dead letter, one the bourgeois government never implemented.

This was a serious defeat for the working class movement. At the 1923 Congress of the Comintern, Zetkin admonished the representatives of the PSI, saying that, “this great historic moment found the workers’ leaders to be feeble in spirit. The reformist leaders of the Socialist Party drew back in fear from the revolutionary perspective of broadening the factory occupation into a struggle for power” [14].

An attempt to reckon with this defeat is the subterranean thread woven throughout the rest of Gramsci’s later writings. Gramsci came to the conclusion that the decisive factor in the defeat of the revolution in 1920 was the lack of a revolutionary party capable of leading the working class. Examining the multifaceted roles the party plays in organizing and ideologically preparing the working class for revolution are seminal themes in his Prison Notebooks. Next, we’ll look at the interrelated concepts of hegemony and organic intellectuals, keeping in mind the experiences of the two red years of 1919-1920.

Hegemony

Gramsci wrote about how the working class’ failure to achieve “hegemony” in 1919-1920 led to the defeat of the revolution. There is always one class that occupies a position of supremacy within any given class society. While force is crucial to achieving and maintaining this supremacy, repressive power is, by itself, not enough to maintain class rule. Gramsci describes power in class society as a dialectical unity of repression and ideology:

“The supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as ‘domination’ and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership’. A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to ‘liquidate’, or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force; it leads kindred and allied groups. A social group can, and indeed must, already exercise ‘leadership’ [i.e., hegemony] before winning governmental power (this indeed is one of the principal conditions for the winning of such power); it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp it must continue to ‘lead’ as well.” [15]

When struggling for power, workers strive not only to take control of the state away from their class enemy, but also to provide the intellectual, moral, and political leadership to other classes or class strata [16]. This leadership is what Gramsci calls hegemony, and it was formulated in part as a consideration of the differences between the revolutionary movements in prospects in bourgeois democracies versus colonized countries, especially as it related to the different roles and relations between the state and civil society.

Gramsci didn’t coin or invent the word hegemony, which was used in the socialist and workers’ movements since at least the 1890s (from Plekhanov to Lenin). Gramsci did, however, produce and articulate the concept of hegemony and move the debate over hegemony from the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the working-class’ role in the revolution against a more advanced capitalist state; thus, its applicability for our situation today.

Hegemony is the web of habit, culture and tradition spun by the most organized class in society. Today, the bourgeoisie uses its almost limitless resources to exert ideological influence over the working class, obscuring the real power dynamics in capitalist society. In any and all times, the ideas of a class are developed and spread by intellectuals, journalists, civil servants, cultural workers, and others who are closely linked to that class. The ideas of the bourgeoisie, which are under capitalism the hegemonic ideas, create a way of thinking about the world that prevents the working class from unifying and acting in our own interests. The struggle for hegemony isn’t a military one (although it doesn’t exclude it), but a struggle for consciousness, a clas battle in the realm of ideas, art, media, and so much more.

The revolution failed in 1920 because, according to Gramsci, “the revolution finds the great Italian popular masses still unformed, still pulverized in an animal swarm of individuals without discipline and without culture, obedient only to the stimuli of the stomach and of barbaric passions” [17]. Gramsci’s somewhat harsh assessment of the level of the proletariat’s consciousness was not at all accompanied by a pessimism in its revolution’s prospects. On the contrary, Gramsci emphasized the creative and constructive aspect of revolutionary struggle and the proletarian class.

Where the rotten, individualistic, and banal cultural relics of capitalism once stood, he envisioned a process whereby, through the act of struggling for liberation, the proletariat would break free from the ideological shackles of the bourgeoisie and construct a new authentically socialist and revolutionary culture. Gramsci believed that, “Communism is their [i.e. the proletariat and peasants’] culture, it is the system of historical conditions in which they will acquire a personality, a dignity, a culture, through which they will become the creative spirit of progress and beauty” [18].

This optimistic call to struggle should serve as an antidote to any class conscious worker disappointed by the lack of class unity, ethical, and ideological confusion in the movement today. A battle for hegemony is a battle for ideas. It’s precisely in fighting for the beauty of communism that the working class remakes itself in the image of its goal. The theory of hegemony helps revolutionaries see the many sided aspects of revolutionary process.

The Leninist Party and “Organic Intellectuals”

For the proletariat to achieve hegemony, the proletariat has to articulate and expound its own conception of the world, its own ideology in opposition to bourgeois ideology. What Gramsci called “organic intellectuals” play a crucial role in this struggle. Under the traditional sense of the term, an intellectual is someone associated with universities or research institutes. For Gramsci, everyone is an intellectual in the sense that everyone has a conception of the world that is manifested in their day-to-day activity. Organic intellectuals are specifically people who are in close contact with the working class and who take, “active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’” [19]. These individuals are not intellectuals in the traditional sense. They don’t hold university posts and might not even do that much writing at all. Organic intellectuals are nothing other than class-conscious workers who act as leaders of their class, communicating the strategies and tactics necessary for making a socialist revolution to other members of their class.

Marx makes a similar point when he wrote that, “Just as the economists are the scientific representatives of the bourgeois class, so the Socialists and the Communists are the theoreticians of the proletarian class” [20]. Popularizing socialism is the foundation of class unity, since it provides an alternative – and more accurate – ideological picture of reality.

It’s possible to see the origins of the theory of the organic intellectual as far back as 1919 when Gramsci wrote an open letter in L’Ordine Nuovo to the factory commissars in the FIAT plant:

“You will see to it also that workers of the section acquire an ever greater ability, and will banish the miserable feelings of professional jealousy which still make them divided and discordant; you will thus train them for the day in which, having to work no longer for the boss but for themselves, it will be necessary for them to be united in solidarity, to grow the forces of the great proletarian army, of which they are the first cells. Why could you not make grow, in the workshop itself, suitable sections for education, true professional schools, where every worker, rising from brutalizing tasks, might open his mind to the processes of production, and better himself?”  [21]

Gramsci urges these manual laborers to take up the task of educating their fellow workers on the jobs. There is a deep sense of egalitarianism pregnant in the concept of the organic intellectual. Anyone can be an organic intellectual, provided they take it upon themselves to  study. Knowledge and personal betterment are awarded their proper place as revolutionary virtues. The above quote also emphasizes the ethical component of being an organic intellectual. Revolution entails a profound ethical or moral realignment.

Given the mechanisms through which the bourgeoisie can disseminate its ideology, workers and oppressed people face incredible obstacles for promoting socialism. Obviously then, organic intellectuals have to be united and cultivated through the communist party. Gramsci writes that “the political party for some social groups [i.e. the working class] is nothing other than their specific way of elaborating their own category of organic intellectuals directly in the political and philosophical field” [22].

A Leninist political party serves the function of educating the working class and molding members of this class into educators and organizers who can utilize a program to expand the ranks of class conscious workers. As Lenin put it in What is to be Done?, in the Party, “all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals… must be obliterated” [23].

Contending with the exigencies of the revolution in 1920, Gramsci argued forcefully for Leninist political organization:

“The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organized and long-prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favorable (and it can be favorable only in so far as such a force exists, and is full of fighting spirit). Therefore the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed, and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact, and self aware” [24].

Gramsci argued that a core component of building hegemony was the training of cadres (organic intellectuals) who were skilled in popularizing scientific socialism. Maintaining and enlarging this “permanently organized” force is not possible without the discipline of a Leninist party.

Lessons for today

In 1926, after about five years of increasingly violent street confrontations between communists and progressives, on the one hand, and the nascent fascist movement and Royal Italian Army, on the other, Mussolini’s government outlawed the PCI (then the PCd’I). It’s leaders and members were driven undergroud and some–like Gramsci–were arrested. Some leaders and many workers joined in the partisan armed struggle against fascism and communism gained in popularity as a result of their presence and stature in the struggle.

The PCI’s Garibaldi Brigades were some of the largest and most effective partisan fighters against not only Mussolini but the fascist government as a whole, its army and police, and its street forces. Mussolini and his girlfriend tried to escape from Italy to Switzerland in 1945, but were captured by one of the PCI’s Garibaldi Brigades.

Gramsci never saw life outside of prison again. After his arrest in 1926, Gramsci was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Although he wrote and studied vociferously, his health seriously deteriorated. An organized international campaign began in 1933 to demand his release. They successfully forced authorities to move Gramsci to different prisons and even clinics, but each one neglected his several serious health problems, including arteriosclerosis, angina, pulmonary tuberculosis, and more.

Gramsci’s sentence was set to expire on 21 April 1937. At the time, however, he wasn’t in good enough health to move. He died at the age of 46 just days later, on 27 April 1937.

What are some lessons to learn from the experiences of the Gramsci and the PCI in the interwar years? First, is the importance of determining tactics based on a sober analysis of concrete conditions. Gramsci advocated the formation of factory councils because he thought that tactic would work based on the fact that industrial workers in Turin were highly concentrated and highly organized, not because he thought that factory councils would be an eternal form of organization.

The second lesson to learn is the importance of education for the socialist movement. The theory of hegemony shows us that even if revolutionary socialists are a minority in the working class, and we always will be before a revolution, we require the sympathy of the majority to make revolution. The long, many sided process of shifting the inertia of the proletariat requires consistent educational work. Every class conscious worker must think of themselves as an educator, an organic intellectual, and has to consider what education is, what it means to teach, learn, and study [25].

Third, hegemony helps us see the importance of thoroughly imbuing revolutionary culture into our party and our movement. The class struggle is not purely economic or purely political but also cultural. The weight of bourgeois cultural traditions weigh heavily on the working class. Creating a revolutionary culture gives our movement staying power and a profound, all encompassing vision of continuity with our revolutionary ancestors, traditions, and expectant futures. 

Finally, we have the necessity of permanent organization. Educating and preparing our class for revolution requires an immense amount of organization. Only a revolutionary political party can pick up that mantle. Only a revolutionary party can make the idea of communism a material force. To paraphrase Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, philosophers have only interpreted hegemony in various ways; the point, however, is to achieve it.

References

[1] Spriano, Paolo. 1975. The Occupation of the Factories: Italy 1920. Translated by G.A. Williams. London: Pluto Press, p. 44.
[2] For a paradigmatic case, see Kautsky, Karl. 1918. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
[3] Gramsci, Antonio. 1919. “The Price of History.” L’Ordine Nuovo.
[4] Lenin, V.I. 1922. “Theses on Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International.”
[5] Lenin, V.I. 1918. “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government.”
[6] Gramsci, Antonio. 1919. “The Conquest of the State.” L’Ordine Nuovo.
[7] Gramsci, Antonio. 1919. “The Development of the Revolution.L’Ordine Nuovo.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Gramsci, Antonio. 1919. “Chronicles of the New Order.” L’Ordine Nuovo.
[10] Zetkin, Clara. 1922. “Report of the Communist Party of Germany.” In Taber, M., ed. The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923 (pp. 67-83). Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019, p. 68.
[11] Gramsci, Antonio. 1921. “The Turin Factory Council Movement.” L’Ordine Nuovo.
[12] Spriano, Paolo. 1975. The Occupation of the Factories: Italy 1920. Translated by G.A. Williams. London: Pluto Press, p. 88.
[13] Ibid., p. 91.
[14] Zetkin, Clara. 1923. “ The Struggle against Fascism.”
[15] Gramsci, Antonio. 2018. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers, pp. 57-58.
[16] Ibid., p. 59.
[17] Gramsci, Antonio. 1919. “Revolutionaries and Elections.” L’Ordine Nuovo.
[18] Gramsci, Antonio. 1919. “Workers and Peasants.” L’Ordine Nuovo.
[19] Gramsci, Antonio. 2018. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 10.
[20] Marx, Karl. 1973. The Poverty of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers, p. 125.
[21] Gramsci, Antonio. 1919. “To the Section Commissars of the FIAT-Brevetti Workshops.” L’Ordine Nuovo.
[22] Gramsci, Antonio. 2018. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 19.
[23] Lenin, V.I. 1902. What is to be done? Burning Questions of our Movement.
[24] Gramsci, Antonio. 2018. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 19.
[25] For those interested in revolutionary educational theory and practice, see the “Praxis” and “Pedagogy” sections of Liberation School.

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