Gramsci’s Political Writings 1910-20
Gramsci has been going through something of a renaissance recently, especially in the Anglophone world, due to a combination of factors. First, there’s the fact that he’s been wildly influential on the Greek left and the Spanish left. The version of Gramsci they offer tells us a lot about those political formations. For many in Greece, Gramsci is a kind of radical reformist, a Left-Eurocommunist who offers us a strategy of radical ruptures within and without the state. For those in Spain, principally those in Podemos, he’s a founding figure of post-marxism, and the strategy is one that transcends class. The second factor in the Gramsci renaissance is the fact that in the Post-Stalinism period theory has been shaken up and theorists like Gramsci have been freed from their place in an crystallised ideological structure. The last reason is the publishing program of the group around the Historical Materialism journal, who are bringing to light, or republishing earlier work that speaks to us anew in this new conjuncture. Particularly important is Peter Thomas’s book, The Gramscian Moment.
Gramsci’s early writings are mostly sidelined by the debates over his famous ‘Prison Notebooks’, but there is a lot of fascinating material in this early volume. In his earliest ‘Crocean’ socialist phase, Gramsci is like an early version of Sartre. His emphasis is on eduction and moral development (which, like much existentialism) almost reads like modern self-development pop-psychology). His second, more interesting phase, was as the theorist of the ‘factory council’ movement in Turin. Most of the pieces here are republished from the paper Ordine Nuovo, which Gramsci edited and which achieved mass circulation and great popularity at the time. During this phase, Gramsci is keen to differentiate the councils from the trade unions, which are, in his eyes, simply mechanisms for workers to defend themselves within the framework of capitalism. They were bureaucratic in structure and consciousness. The councils, on the other hand, were the seeds of a new state within the old one. No longer was culture and education so important, for it was through the practice of the factory councils – the radical democratisation of the factories – that workers came to understand their place within society. The debates in the book (are councils the same as soviets? what is the role of a party?) between Gramsci and others (Bordiga and Tasca) are fascinating. Sometimes Gramsci is in the wrong yet his work has a liveliness and originality that is reminiscent of Rosa Luxemburg or the early Leon Trotsky, both in theoretical outlook (emphasis on the spontaneous creative powers of workers) and style. By the final few essays of the book, Gramsci runs up against the problem of the Socialist Party, which was actively undermining the council movement and occupations in 1920. For the first time the ‘political’ proper – that which later defines him as a theorist – begins to dominate his thought, and he moves closer to Bordiga’s call for a new party. The final essay is written only days before the Livrono conference when they split from the PSI, a move that later Gramsci considered a grievous error.
These pieces are, needless to say, of their time and place. The working class has been so transformed in advanced countries that it’s difficult to imagine factory councils emerging as they did in Turin, which was a city dominate by metalworkers and autoworkers. Though one could imagine councils emerging in industrial countries on the semi-periphery (China (Foxconn!), Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, etc). This is also a work predating the emergence of Lenin as a theorist, and it’s marked by that absence. Particularly lacking are notions of strategy or tactics more appropriate to party formations.This was all about to change. Within a decade socialists across the world – including Gramsci – were to associate themselves with the Soviet Union and ‘Leninism’, and then shortly after that Stalin was to finally take power and stamp out the kinds of liberatory currents that Gramsci here represents. But by then Gramsci himself was imprisoned in a fascist prison by Mussolini, and it was there that he was to write his most influential work.