Tuesday, January 28, 2020

3312. The Return of Karl Kautsky?

By Lance Selfa, International Socialist Project, January 13, 2020
Karl Kautsky 1854-1938. Photograph, early 20th century


For those on the revolutionary left, Karl Kautsky seemed like little more than an historical figure. Someone whom your Marxist education would expose you to, but someone you’d never think would become a reference point for contemporary politics.
Times have changed, especially with the political and academic interventions of Lars Lih and Eric Blanc. Both of them have tried to rehabilitate Kautsky as an historical figure, and Blanc and his co-thinkers in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Momentum/Bread and Roses/Socialist Call groups have argued for Kautsky’s utility to socialists today. For both writers, Kautsky is deployed as the antidote to a received Leninist wisdom. In Lih’s case, he’s trying to argue that Lenin’s conception of the party, even of revolution, wasn’t much of a departure from what Kautsky had established as Marxist orthodoxy for years. I won’t say much more about this, as others here have done more work on Lih’s (very long) books than I have. For Blanc, what we’re getting is a more full-blown defense of Kautsky’s conception of “democratic socialism” as the only viable way to achieve socialism today. This is where I’d like to focus.
When I remember what I learned about Karl Kautsky in texts like John Molyneux’s Marxism and the Party and What is the Real Marxist Tradition?, I can summarize it in a few points. I would also encourage anyone interested in learning about Kautsky’s politics to read Darren Rosso’s excellent summary and critique in Marxist Left Review.
First, Kautsky, the “Pope of Marxism,” was something of a pedant and not a very original thinker who did nonetheless produce some interesting work, like his writings about the origins of Christianity.
Second, that he was the chief practitioner of “Second International Marxism.” He outlined a conception of the transition to socialism as being mainly parliamentary and, just as importantly, as some(1thing of an inevitable process of the evolution of capitalism. As capitalism developed, it would create a larger working class that would form larger and larger organizations like the unions and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which would lead to a point where the working class would be so strong that it could elect socialism into power. This sort of view is what Walter Benjamin and Daniel Ben-Said called the “unilinear” view of history. It’s the sort of view that radicals like Labriola, Gramsci and Mari√°tegui broke with when they adopted a view of Marxism as a “philosophy of praxis.”
The SPD’s 1891 Erfurt program and Kautsky’s commentaries on it reaffirm his parliamentary focus over and over, including the analysis that the character of the state and parliament changes when workers parties are represented there. If the workers’ party becomes the parliamentary majority, the nature of parliament itself changes. No longer is parliament simply an instrument of the ruling class, as Marx and Engels had argued. It could become an instrument of the working class. Parliament was the natural “battleground” where the “last decisive battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie can be fought,” Kautsky wrote.
Third, that his conception of the socialist party was that it was a “revolutionary party,” in that was dedicated to socialism, but not a “revolution making” party that would intervene in the struggle to organize new forces and to shape events to bring revolution a more likely outcome. As he put it in The Road to Power (1909):
We know that our objectives can be attained only through a revolution, but at the same time we know that it is just as little in our power to make this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it…. The proletariat is constantly growing in numbers and in moral and economic strength… so its victory and the defeat of capitalism are inevitable.
This was the difference between the Second International parties that were largely electoral, but which had “minimum” and “maximum” programs, and the “parties of a new type” that the Bolsheviks and the early communist parties represented.1
Fourth, that he developed a politics of the “center” that combined radical/revolutionary rhetoric with reformist practice. That’s a crude definition of centrism that in a Marxist sense, describes a political current vacillating between reform and revolution. For most of Kautsky’s career, he was something of a literary centrist, often justifying a passive evolutionary politics with orthodox Marxism. But in real terms up to and after the First World War, he became a leading figure among the “independent” socialists, who broke from the main body of the SPD over its policies around the war. But whereas Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and other radicals “passed through” the Independent Socialists on their way to forming the Communist Party (KPD), Kautsky wanted nothing more than a reunification of the independents and the mainstream SPD after the war, when they could both return to the humdrum of parliamentary and trade union politics.
Fifth, that he became a “renegade” from Marxism as a vocal opponent of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and an exponent of politics that were largely considered to have failed, especially around the question of the First World War. That’s most likely why Trotsky, in his short obituary of Kautsky in 1938, notes that very few paid attention to his death. Trotsky feels obligated to explain why Kautsky was considered an important figure in Marxism before the First World War. Incidentally, despite what Lars Lih claims, our tradition never denied that Lenin considered Kautsky to be the leading theoretician of Marxism after Marx/Engels. But we were also clear that Lenin made a sharp break with Kautsky. As Trotsky wrote, “We remember Kautsky as our former teacher to whom we once owed a good deal, but who separated himself from the proletarian revolution and from whom, consequently, we had to separate ourselves.”
In the end, Kautsky is not a very complicated figure to understand, and his theory is pretty straightforward. He obviously changed positions on various issues over the course of his 50 years on the public stage, but there remains a large amount of consistency in his outlook throughout. One of his biographers, Massimo Salvadori, whose Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 is well worth reading, went all the way back to something Kautsky wrote on the nature of parliamentary democracy and “direct legislation” in 1893. With this example, Salvadori showed how Kautsky held to certain core views throughout his career. Chief among these was the idea that modern capitalism required a technical/bureaucratic caste of experts to run it—rejecting the revolutionary idea that “every cook can govern”—and that because of this, the state could not be “smashed” or replaced, but only governed differently. Salvadori writes:
Central to Kautsky’s analysis was the conviction that the model of 1848 and the [1871] Paris Commune could no longer serve to advance workers’ interests in a social context dominated by large-scale capitalism; it could inspire neither greater offensive actions by labour, nor the construction of a socialist state. The coherence of his interpretation of this position led inevitably to his clash with Lenin’s rehabilitation of the revolutionary spirit of 1848 and 1871.”2
This is, hopefully, a good backdrop for the discussion of the recent exchange between Eric Blanc and Mike Taber on Kautsky’s relevance to socialists today. What is at stake is socialists’ understanding of what socialism is and how to get it to it.
Was Kautsky right or wrong?
Blanc states his defense of Kautsky and his relevance today on several points:
  1. Kautsky was the preeminent advocate of a “ruptural” anticapitalist strategy in the prewar Second International. His argument with Leninists wasn’t about the goal of socialism, but about the means to get there. The means he advocated was the election of a workers’ government to parliament.
  2. Kautsky’s politics failed in the run-up to the war because he, like Rosa Luxemburg, didn’t fully understand the nature and conservatizing force of the trade union bureaucracy. When he was forced to confront this fact, he ultimately surrendered to it.
  3. Kautsky rejected an “insurrectionary” strategy because he realized that it wasn’t relevant in modern democratic capitalism. It may have worked in tsarist Russia, but not in quasi-democratic Germany. And history has proven Kautsky correct.
  4. Since the Leninist strategy doesn’t work, Leninists have concentrated their fire on Kautskyians for not seeing the dangers of trying to take over or run the existing bourgeois state. This isn’t true. Kautsky advocated getting rid of the standing army and the general strike if the bourgeoisie threatened to take away workers’ democratic rights.
  5. Kautsky didn’t think the working class could just take over the state. It would have to thoroughly democratize the state from top to bottom. Blanc compares Kautsky’s views of democratizing the German state to Marx’s views on the Paris Commune.
  6. Kautsky’s conception proved out in the Finnish revolution of 1917-1918, but it hasn’t been tried much since. That’s in part due to the left’s refusal/inability to connect extraparliamentary struggle with electoral campaigns, a deficiency the left is now overcoming through campaigns like those of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC).
Blanc’s conclusions are also worth noting here. Reevaluating Kautsky’s contributions allows the left to:
  • Break from dogmatism rooted in generalizing the 1917 experience of the Russian Revolution. His chief example of the break with this form of dogmatism is the left’s willingness to use the Democratic Party ballot line.
  • Appreciate better the importance for fighting for democratic rights.
  • Take the electoral arena more seriously, as noted earlier in the mentions of Sanders and AOC.
Summarizing these points makes clear just how much Blanc’s views on Kautsky are tied to his acceptance of and advocacy for pro-Democratic Party reformist politics.
Mike Taber does a good job of responding to Blanc. Taber’s strongest points are as follows:
First, he points out that Blanc wants to divide Kautsky’s career into an earlier period of the revolutionary “good” Kautsky, and the later, post-First World War centrist “bad” Kautsky. But as Taber shows, with the illustration of Kautsky’s views on whether socialists should take positions in capitalist governments (the so-called “Millerand” controversy), that even the “good” Kautsky had a tendency to make the formally orthodox argument, but to accommodate to opportunism in practice. In the Millerand example, Kautsky argued against socialist participation in capitalist governments in general, but conceded that in exceptional circumstances, such participation might be acceptable. It wasn’t a question of principle, but of strategy. When the SPD experienced its first major electoral setback in 1907, following an election in which questions of imperialism and militarism dominated, Kautsky retreated on earlier positions that hinted at revolutionary opposition to the outbreak of war. As Salvadori writes, “[Kautsky] indicated a road of opposition to the war based on ideological agitation, without any sort of action that could be construed as extra-legal (strikes, demonstrations, etc.). Kautsky’s approach remained essentially legalistic, fearful of any action that might endanger the official existence of the party.”3 This was essentially the policy of the SPD leadership.
Writing in The Social Revolution (1902), the “good” Kautsky spelled out his view of the relationship of parliament to socialism in this way:
The more, however, that the ruling classes support themselves with the State machinery and misuse this for the purposes of exploitation and oppression, just so much more must the bitterness of the proletariat against them increase, class hatred grow, and the effort to conquer the machinery of State increase in intensity.
So the candle is burning from both ends, and the ruling parties as well as the government more and more doom Parliament to sterility. Parliamentarism is continually more incapable of following a decisive policy in any direction. It becomes ever more senile and helpless, and can only be reawakened to new youth and strength when it, together with the total governmental power, is conquered by the rising proletariat and turned to serve its purposes. Parliamentarism, far from making a revolution useless and superfluous, is itself in need of a revolution in order to vivify it.[my emphasis]
In this passage, it’s almost as if socialism is the servant of parliamentarism, rather than its negation. Kautsky’s position stands opposed to that of revolutionary socialists who see parliament as part of the capitalist state, and therefore, aim to replace it with organs of workers’ democracy.
Second, Taber shows that Blanc’s characterizations of “insurrection” and “Leninism” are caricatures. As he writes, the Leninist model/theory of revolution is to organize and mobilize the working class to fight for its class interests and to the overthrow of the ruling class. Many strategies and tactics would be used in this battle—including utilizing parliamentary elections—so to say that there is a “Leninist strategy of insurrection” is wrong. Even more ridiculous is the idea that Leninists/communists haven’t paid sufficient attention to the fight for democratic rights, of which more can be said.
Third, Blanc’s contention that the Bolshevik revolution only succeeded because Russia was a feudal monarchy is wrong, Taber argues. The regime the October revolution overthrew was a capitalist government. It hadn’t yet established a functioning parliamentary wing, but there was an expression of a much higher level of workers’ democracy, the soviets, in operation at the time. So it is inaccurate to assert that there were no democratic rights or practices in Russia at the time of the October revolution.
This “East” versus “West” comparison is fundamental to Blanc’s anti-Leninism. His argument in favor of Kautskyism or “democratic socialism,” hinges on the notion that no socialist revolution has succeeded in a Western parliamentary democracy. Revolution, a la Lenin, is associated with political and economic backwardness—a position Kautsky held as well. Not only is the modern parliamentary state stronger and more technically superior to any forces that would challenge it from below, workers have never actually demonstrated an interest in replacing parliamentary regimes with workers democracy. Quoting the once radical sociologist Carmen Siriani, Blanc contends that “even when a desire for immediate socialist transformation was deepest among working people, support to replace universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy with workers’ councils, or other organs of dual power, has always remained marginal.”
Two responses to this are in order. First, if this is merely saying that a revolutionary position is a minority position in the workers’ movement even when a revolution is unfolding, Blanc is not saying anything of which “Leninists” aren’t aware. In fact, it took from February to October, 1917, for the majority of the working class to move from a position of support for the capitalist provisional government to support for a soviet state. Second, and more importantly, Blanc doesn’t acknowledge the multiple examples of workers creating organs of direct democracy and/or conditions of dual power that have taken place since the Russian Revolution. In the old Comintern debate on “soviets” vs. “parliament,” Blanc stands (with Kautsky) clearly on the side of parliament. Taber also points out that revolutionaries’ assertion of the impossibility of a “parliamentary road to socialism” doesn’t preclude socialists using electoral tactics. Nor does it rule out the possibility that the election of a left government will create a revolutionary situation, as happened in Spain in the 1930s or Chile in the 1970s, or (as Blanc highlights), happened in Finland in 1917-1918.
On the question of democratic rights and revolution, Taber somewhat lets Blanc off the hook. Or, at least, he could have made a stronger case against Blanc. It’s true that the “good” Kautsky did talk about democracy as being essential to help the working class to prepare itself for social revolution. But as with many things with Kautsky, the rhetoric didn’t always line up with practice. For one thing, again, Kautsky’s view of “social revolution” was really one of a socialist government coming to power in parliament. His advocacy of a militia replacing the standing army was the mainstream policy of the SPD, as it existed in a state dominated by Prussian militarism. And his talk about democratizing the state was really more about making all levels of government subject to election…not the idea of organs of workers’ government replacing the capitalist state.
But the biggest missed opportunity4 in Taber’s critique of Blanc comes in his failure to raise Kautsky’s 1910 position on the general strike in Prussia when Rosa Luxemburg, and then workers agitation, demanded it to abolish the three-class system of voting that was designed to blunt “one-person, one-vote” for the working class majority. In other words, to demand a democratic republic, which had been a long-time goal, even raison d’√™tre, of Prussian social democracy. Kautsky argued that the time wasn’t right, that it could provoke the state to crack down, and, in any event, the workers’ movement should keep its powder dry for the 1912 elections. Kautsky elaborated further that, unlike his brief post-1905 Russian revolution interest in the mass strike, he thought this was a tactic that couldn’t be translated from backward Russia to advanced Germany. In his polemic against Luxemburg, he introduces the idea of the “strategy of annihilation” contrasted to the “strategy of attrition.” In brief, he argues that the strategy of annihilation—the frontal assault on the state—may have been appropriate under Tsarism, but the patient, slow, strategy of attrition is only one available to socialists in democratic countries. Essentially this is Eric Blanc’s argument. And in case someone tries to argue that this is a formulation of the “bad” Kautsky, it’s worth quoting Kautsky at length:
[B]y a strategy of attrition I mean the entirety of the practice pursued by the social democratic proletariat since the 1860s.… this practice begins with the assumption that the war against the present state and the present society must be waged in such a way as to constantly strengthen the proletariat and weaken its enemies, without allowing the decisive battle to be provoked so long as we are the weaker. We are served by anything that disorganizes our enemies and undermines their authority and combativity, just as anything that contributes to organizing the proletariat, that widens its horizons and combativity, increases the confidence of the popular masses in their organizations. This applies not only to parliamentarism, but also to the movement for wage increases and to street demonstrations that are conducted successfully.5
As with so much of Kautsky’s writing, the rhetoric is hard to disagree with. But the concrete circumstances where this rhetoric is deployed point towards compromise and opportunism. Any socialist wants to develop the organization, combativity and confidence of the working class. Yet, this passage comes in a polemic in which these goals are being counterposed to a genuine mass struggle right under Kautsky’s nose. As it turned out, the 1910 party congress passed a resolution affirming the tactic of the general strike to fight for democratic rights, but stripped out the part that committed the party to propagandize for it. It was similarly to the resolution of an earlier controversy (1906) around trade union leaders’ opposition to the general strike. A watered-down resolution of support for the possibility of a general strike in the future if the unions and union leaders agreed to it passed. Kautsky’s role in this debate was to act as a left critic of the trade union leaders, but even more sharply to criticize radicals like Luxemburg for impatience and thinking that they could conjure up revolution.
The 1910 example functions in a couple of ways. First, it undermines the idea that revolutionaries didn’t care about democratic rights, since that was what the whole argument between Luxemburg and Kautsky revolved around.6 But from that root in a debate on strategy in Prussia, the Kautsky-Luxemburg grew into a polemic about reform and revolution. As Charles Post pointed out,
History would prove Luxemburg and her comrades correct on the suffrage issue. The SPD leadership, with the active support of Kautsky — the spokesperson of the emerging “orthodox Marxist center” — derailed the militant movement for suffrage reform in Prussia. The “three class” voting system remained in place until 1919, when massive strikes and mutinies and the threat of workers’ revolution finally produced universal suffrage in Germany.7
Second, it shows that this incident which led Luxemburg to break with Kautsky, and which could be considered the dividing line between the “good” and “bad” Kautsky, has antecedents that reach all the way back to the high water mark of the “good” Kautsky that Blanc wants to uphold. Recall that Kautsky viewed the “war of attrition” as being the synonymous with the practice of the SPD almost from its inception.
Mike Taber’s critique of Blanc’s sloppiness and slippery use of words is highly effective. For example, he calls out Eric’s remarks about “dozens of occasions over the past century in which a majority of workers have supported a process of democratic socialist transformation” being more appropriate to the dozens of elections of labor and social democratic rather than the few instances of electoral victories leading to revolutionary crises. If Blanc can argue that the 1917 experience hasn’t been replicated, and therefore, should be discarded a model for socialist transformation in the 21st century, what can we say about those “dozens” of experiences of labor and social democratic governments? Though these parties have held power for years in a number of countries in Western Europe, Western Europe is no closer to socialism today than it was in 1917.
It’s likewise with Eric’s constant invocations of the word “rupture” and related words (“ruptural”) without really giving them definitive content. In this way, Kautsky’s parliamentary road to socialism can be made to seem as “ruptural” as the 1918-1919 German revolution. And that is clearly what Blanc’s reference to the Finnish revolution of 1917 and 1918 is meant to do. Blanc is correct to assert that socialists today should study the lessons of the Finnish experience, which are not well-known. However, socialists today may not arrive at the same conclusions about the utility of the Finnish example that Blanc does. As Duncan Hart wrote in response to Blanc’s 2017 article on the Finnish revolution, “Far from the revolution being a vindication of the SDP’s strategy, the horrific massacre and political repression that followed is a searing indictment of the best form Social Democracy could take. If anything, the Finnish tragedy is precisely an argument for the Bolshevik’s interventionist revolutionary Marxism in the negative.”8
Most of the Blanc/Taber debate ends before the German party’s collapse into chauvinism in the First World War. Kautskyism increasingly proved itself unable to cope with unexpected events and crises, and a speeding up of politics. When more was demanded of the party than simply a better election platform, it was found wanting. The passive optimism of Kautsky’s most radical period foreshadowed this. In 1909, the party thought his “road to power” to be too radical to publish under the party’s name. As Salvadori points out, there’s a disjunction between Kautsky’s discussing the period as one of domestic reaction and rising imperialism, while asserting that the coming social confrontation would occur in conditions favorable to the working class.
Is Kautskyism relevant today?
To answer this question we have to define what we mean by “today.” If we define “today” subjectively by the state of the revolutionary left and its organizations, we might understand why Kautsky’s politics have some attraction. It’s that, if we view the current weak state of the revolutionary left and the forces of socialism as something akin to 1848 or that of the period of reaction after the defeat of the Paris Commune, it might make sense. With little organization, and thus, with little organizational expression of the sorting out of perspectives between reform and revolution, Kautsky’s politics can seem like they fit with the moment. If we’re nearly back to the formation of the modern socialist movement, or (more positively), if we’re refounding socialism for the 21st century, than perhaps it makes sense that we can borrow from one of its earliest exponents.
For some this just covers for a fairly open advocacy of reformism, but with a Marxist gloss to give it an edgier, more radical, feel. This is where I would place the political current that Catalyst/Vivek Chibber, Jacobin and Eric Blanc inhabit. Despite the rhetoric, their advocacy and practice is against the possibility of revolution today, and to put forth an “anti-rupture” theory of social change, very much in line with Kautsky’s. It’s also ironic that those who consider Leninism to be old-fashioned or out of touch with 21st century reality reach back to rehabilitate an even older tradition whose heyday was forged in the 19th century.
However, I think there’s another, more revolutionary or anti-capitalist view that, if it doesn’t necessarily hold up Kautsky as its inspiration, does actually show appreciation for the Second International socialist parties, and even for the large Stalinized CPs of the 20th century, like the Eurocommunist Italian Communist Party. I was reminded of an article by Martin Mosquera, an Argentinian Trotskyist, about revolutionary organization today. It was published in the 1917 centennial issue of Viento Sur. The article discusses the importance of these parties in building a working-class culture and, in the case of the Second International parties, of producing the generation of leaders that formed the 3rd International. For sections of today’s Fourth International, this provides some historical justification for their work in the broad parties, such as Podemos or the Brazilian Workers Party. Mosquera emphasizes the need for revolutionaries to maintain within a broad formation an anti-capitalist current/organization that’s tied to the social movements. This is one way to avoid adaptation to social democracy.
But if revolutionaries do not have a solid organizational foundation to work with, it is easy to see how their theory and practice can adapt to the social democratic (or Eurocommunist or populist) broader formation. These types of strategic questions are going to face the revolutionary left for years to come, and hopefully will become more “live” questions as the struggle picks up. So on this score, to answer the question about Kautsky’s relevance, we can say that he and his legacy are relevant to other socialists in the orbit of social democracy. And, by extension, it is relevant to revolutionaries and Leninists who must polemicize with these politics.
However, if we define “today” in more objective terms, with increasing immiseration of millions of workers, with social revolt sweeping the globe, with political crises like the impeachment of trump, with the far right growing, and with climate catastrophe facing us, it’s hard to see how Kautsky’s politics (the ones that Blanc admires) are relevant. Remember, Kautsky’s politics were the reflection of, as Trotsky put it, “an era of capitalist ascension, of democracy, of adaptation of the proletariat. The revolutionary side of Marxism had changed into an indefinite, in any case, a distant perspective. The struggle for reforms and propaganda was on the order of the day.” Does that description really accord with the picture of the world today? Hardly. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that people automatically gravitate to revolutionary politics, but nothing in politics is automatic. And what answer to the current state of affairs of the world do the modern-day Kautskyists have beyond electing a Corbyn or a Sanders? And could it be that the revival of Kautsky’s ideas is only temporary before the set of crises listed above exposes all of their weaknesses? For that we can only prepare.


1 There is some disagreement as to whether Lenin and the Bolsheviks described their project as building a party of a new type, and there is plenty of evidence that the term originated with Stalinism instead. In any event, Lenin used the phrase only once, in a letter to Alexandra Kollontai in April, 1917: “P.S. I am afraid that there will now be an epidemic in Petersburg ‘simply’ of excitement, without systematic work on a party of a new type. It must not be a la ‘Second International.’ Wider! Raise up new elements! Awaken a new initiative, new organizations in all sections, and prove to them that peace will be brought only by an armed Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, if it takes power.” In these lines, Lenin clearly envisions an activist party, organizing new forces, to rally on behalf of the workers’ councils, rather than parliament.
2 Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (Verso Modern Classics) (pp. 13-14). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
3 Ibid., 121.
4 It’s also possible that Taber considered the Prussian voting rights struggle to be an example of one of the points against the “bad” Kautsky.
5 Salvadori, p. 145.
6 In another context, Lenin wrote: “The proletariat cannot be victorious except through democracy, i.e., by giving full effect to democracy and by linking with each step of its struggle democratic demands formulated in the most resolute terms. . . . We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands—all of them—can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form.” V.I. Lenin, The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/oct/16.htm.
7 Charles Post, “The ‘Best’ of Karl Kautsky Isn’t Good Enough,” Jacobin, March 9, 2019, at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/03/karl-kautsky-socialist-strategy-german-revolution.
8 See the exchange between Hart and Blanc on Finland here and here. Hart points out that Blanc’s promotion of socialist leader Otto Kuusinen as an example of a Kautskyan who led a revolution, ignored that Kuusinen subsequently repudiated his role in the failed revolution and went on to become a founder of the Finnish Communist Party.


3311. The Revolutionary Ideas of Antonio Gramsci

By Alessandro Giardiello, In Defense of Marxism, January 17, 2020


Antonio Gramsci died in 1937, after spending nearly ten years in prison under Mussolini’s fascist regime. All these years later, his ideas and legacy are still being debated and reinterpreted. Who was Gramsci? All manner of weird and wonderful answers have been given to this question, with plenty of distortions, if not outright historical falsifications, from petit-bourgeois academics and intellectuals, to revisionists in the labour movement.
"During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the 'consolation' of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it."
(V.I. Lenin, The State & Revolution)
Attempts have been made to present Gramsci as a founding father of the Italian nation, allowing even right-wing bourgeois politicians like Berlusconi to claim his legacy. This is truly the last straw: after being painted as a precursor of popular frontism, of the “historic compromise”, of Eurocommunism; now he is to be added to the collection of “fathers of the Republic”, a neutral figure to be respected by all, regardless of where they lie on the political spectrum.
It is our duty, and the duty of every communist, to stand firmly against all attempts to distort the ideas of Gramsci, whether they come from a reformist or social chauvinist angle.

The New Order and the Livorno split

Firstly, it must be said that Gramsci, and the group in Turin organised around the newspaper The New Order (L’Ordine Nuovo), achieved the tremendous task of applying the general lessons of the October Revolution to the specific Italian context, and represented the most advanced layer of the Italian workers’ movement.
The “ordinovists” not only defended and organised the workers in the factory occupations in 1920 but became the theoretical leaders who clarified the role of workers’ control of industry. Gramsci believed that factory committees should be organs of working class power in the sphere of production, as well as the nuclei of workers’ democracy in the new socialist society.
During the Italian revolution of 1919-20, which would go down in history as the “red biennium”, Gramsci used the pages of The New Order to urge the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) to arm the industrial proletariat and the peasants with a revolutionary programme centred around the slogan “all power to the factory committees!”.
Without doubt these ideas were the result of the concrete experience of the workers in Turin, but we cannot ignore the influence of the Bolsheviks and the role of the Soviets in the October Revolution on Gramsci’s writings. It is not a coincidence that Gramsci wrote in The New Order: “the Soviet has proven itself to be immortal as the form of organised society that can adapt to various permanent and vital needs, both economic and political, of the vast majority of the Russian masses.
Gramsci had two aims in the years 1919-1920, which, following Lenin, he considered fundamental to the revolutionary process. Firstly, the formation of organs of class struggle and workers’ democracy that could organise the broadest layers of the workers. Secondly, the development of a revolutionary leadership that would break with all reformist and centrist tendencies in the PSI and in the wider workers’ movement. The reformists like Turati and the centrists like Serrati and Lazzari represented an obstacle to the revolution: the former refuted its necessity; the latter defended it but, not contributing to its organising, were de facto boycotting it.
Gramsci’s factional struggle in the PSI began in November 1920 when the communist faction was formed at Imola, under Amedeo Bordiga’s initiative. In January 1921 at Livorno this revolutionary faction split and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was born. At the Livorno Congress, 58,873 socialist militants and the entire Socialist Youth went with the communists, 98,023 supported the centrist faction and 14,695 remained with Turati’s reformists.
The Comintern supported the split, and its Executive Committee, taking into consideration Serrati’s refusal to expel Turati’s reformists from the party, declared the PCI the only Italian section of the Comintern, supporting the self-exclusion of the PSI.
At the Third Congress of the Comintern (June 1921), the PSI sent a delegation consisting of Lazzari, Maffi and Riboldi to apply for membership in the Comintern. The request was denied, but the leadership of the Comintern suggested to the PCI to apply the tactic of the united front with the PSI, with the aim of attracting those socialists who viewed the USSR enthusiastically and were moving in a revolutionary direction, but still hadn’t reached the conclusion that they would have to break with Serrati’s party.
At that congress, in his report on the world economic situation, Trotsky painted the picture of the ebb in the revolutionary movement and affirmed the necessity of conquering the masses by proposing a united front to achieve transitional demands and fight against fascism.
The Comintern realised that the workers outside the PCI had no way of understanding the reasons for the split, and that it wouldn’t suffice to declare oneself for the revolution to win them over: they had already heard such rhetoric from Serrati. The Communists needed to carry out concrete actions that would demonstrate the truly revolutionary character of their new party.
Furthermore, the workers had just suffered a historic defeat, for the Italian revolution was betrayed by the leaders of the CGL and the PSI. In the spring of 1921, fascist gangs were already active around the country setting fire to the offices of local trade unions, socialist and communist organisations and workers’ newspapers. The only way the communists could stop them was to propose to the socialist workers to act as a united front.
Bordiga rejected the united front tactic and was against any “compromise” with the socialists. Trotsky polemicised against him, saying: “Preparation for us means the creation of conditions that would guarantee us the sympathy of the vast majority of the masses (...) The idea of substituting the will of the masses with the decisions of the so-called vanguard must be refuted and is not Marxist”, adding “Revolutionary actions cannot be carried out without the masses, but the masses are not constituted of absolutely pure elements.”
Bordiga was the undisputed leader of the PCI at that time: his positions had hegemony in the new party and were shared not only by Gramsci but the entire leadership of the PCI.
It was in this way that the party, even though it declared that it wanted to conquer the masses, opposed the united front tactic, maintaining that the only way to expose the betrayals of the socialists was to refuse any and all collaboration with them. At most they would accept a united front in the trade unions, but not on the political plane of the class struggle.
With this attitude the PCI contributed to the victory of the fascist gangs. When the “Arditi del Popolo” (organs of anti-fascist struggle) were created, with the intention of fighting the advent of fascism in the streets, they generated enthusiasm amongst the workers and attracted more and more socialists and communists, as well as entire local trade union branches. The disdainful attitude of the PCI leadership, against the advice of the Comintern, was to threaten all PCI members who joined the Arditi del Popolo with expulsion from the party.
Bordiga had illusions that the party could stop the advent of fascism by relying solely on its own organised forces and militants. Defeat was inevitable.

Gramsci begins the struggle against sectarianism

Between May 1922 and May 1924, Gramsci was sent abroad (first to Moscow, then to Vienna) to partake in the executive organs of the Comintern. In that period he had the chance to rethink some positions he had previously adopted, in part thanks to the intense debates he had with the leaders of the Comintern.
He considered January 1921, the date of birth of the PCI, to be the “most critical moment, both of the general crisis of the Italian bourgeoisie, and of the crisis of the workers’ movement. The split, while historically necessary and inevitable, found the broad masses unprepared and reluctant.”
Thus he began to polemicise against Bordiga, criticising his conception of the party, which was provoking an increasingly clear separation from the masses.
He refused to sign an appeal launched by Bordiga, where Bordiga attacked the Comintern for trying to unify the PCI with the internationalist faction in the PSI (the so-called “terzini”). Bordiga’s appeal was supported by Palmiro Togliatti.
In December 1923, Gramsci advanced the idea of forming a “centre” faction in the PCI, which would oppose both Bordiga’s extreme sectarianism and the right-wing positions of Angelo Tasca. The struggle against the Bordighist faction began at the Como Conference of 1924 and culminated at the Lyon Congress of 1926.
At this Congress, the theses presented by Gramsci and approved by over 90% of the party, affirmed that:
  • the Italian socialist revolution should be led by the industrial and agricultural working classes, and the peasants of the entire country;
  • the working class assumes the leadership of the revolutionary process, at the head of the broad masses;
  • the transformation of society is a process that requires a revolutionary rupture from the current system, that is to say a mass insurrection prepared and organised by the party;
  • the defeat of the workers in the red biennium was attributed to the absence of a revolutionary party
  • the PCI must conquer the majority of the working class by struggling within the mass organisations for immediate demands and goals that would be comprehensible to the broad masses. This is the only way to mature their consciousness and provoke their rupture from the reformist organisations.
  • the united front is the fundamental instrument in this struggle; in the objective situation, this tactic is to be applied with the demand of a workers’ and peasants’ government
The new strategy of the party was based on the theses from the first four congresses of the Comintern: it assimilated its orientations and applied them to the concrete situation in Italy.
This is broadly speaking true, although the theses retain some sectarian statements towards the maximalists (the PSI centrists around Lazzari and Serrati) and the reformists, who are presented as the left of the bourgeois forces rather than the right wing of the workers’ movement.
Furthermore, the slogans have a rather reformist character, instead of being transitional demands towards a socialist society.
However, the greatest limitation of Gramsci’s position at the Lyon Congress was that he openly supported the ambiguous international campaign for the “Bolshevisation” of the party. This was not understood, as it had been in the early years of Soviet power, as a campaign for the education of the young Communist Parties on the basis of the Russian experience, but understood as an administrative struggle, with disciplinary methods taken against “factionalism” and witch-hunts against political opponents, supporting disciplinary measures and expulsions very light-heartedly.
This can only be understood in the context of the degeneration of the Comintern following Lenin’s death. The International, ever more firmly in the grasp of the Stalinists, began a campaign of slanders and threats against the Left Opposition and against Trotsky in particular.
This is not the moment to analyse in detail the reasons of this degeneration, for which we recommend Trotsky’s writings including “Stalinism and Bolshevism”, “In Defence of October” and “The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism.”
However, Gramsci, despite the climate that was developing internationally, and despite the underground conditions the PCI was forced to work in, still continued to defend the right of factions to organise in the party (a right the PCI contested throughout its entire existence).

Gramsci’s attitude towards Stalinism

Shortly before his arrest in 1927, Gramsci wrote a letter to the Central Committee of the CPSU on behalf of the PCI, which can help us understand his attitude towards the ongoing struggle within the Bolshevik Party.
While Gramsci does not explicitly address the questions on the agenda in the USSR at the time, most of his positions in this letter do not align him with the Left Opposition.
However, he defended the Left Opposition against the ongoing witch-hunt, which was paving the way for the suppression of any kind of democracy in the party.
In the climate which had settled in internationally, Gramsci went against the stream by defending Trotsky and the Left Opposition against the expulsions and recognised his role (together with Zinoviev and Kamenev) as great revolutionaries and teachers, which is no small feat considering that in that moment those leaders were being slandered as counterrevolutionaries.
Togliatti, who in that period was in Moscow, in fact did everything in his power to block this letter by Gramsci and was diametrically opposed to his positions. He thought the PCI should have no reservations in siding with the majority in the CPSU. Gramsci’s reply to Togliatti is harsh:
“(...) we would be pitiful and irresponsible revolutionaries if we simply let events run their course, justifying their necessity a priori (...) Your way of reasoning has made the most pathetic impression on me.”
In summary, we can say that even though Gramsci does bear some responsibility for the bureaucratisation of the International and the Italian party, we must also recognise the independence of his judgment and, in the final analysis, his refusal to adopt a monolithic conception of the party, where dissent was simply to be crushed.
In this regard, the differences between him and Togliatti, who took on the leadership of the PCI when Gramsci was arrested, are enormous.

The bureaucratisation of the PCI and the expulsion of the “three”

Togliatti was happy to simply execute the Stalinist line, transforming the party ever more into an instrument of the Soviet bureaucracy’s foreign policy. This process was aided by the fact that the Stalinist leadership could boast of the prestige of the October Revolution, and by the extreme difficulty that PCI members had in receiving accurate information on what was actually happening in the USSR, given that they had to work underground.
In 1928 the Comintern adopted the policy of “social fascism”, also known as The Third Period. The core of this theory is that on the international scale, a new wave of revolutionary movements was coming, and that the main enemy in this context were the reformist and socialist parties, particularly the more left-wing ones, who played the role of fifth columns of imperialism in the workers’ movement.
According to a famous speech by Molotov at a Congress of the Comintern, fascists and socialists were “twins”: from there originated the moniker given to reformists as “social fascists.”
This theory was false in all of Europe; Trotsky refuted it in “The ‘Third Period’ of the Comintern’s Mistakes”.
But in the case of Italy, this theory was even more ridiculous. To declare that a pre-revolutionary situation was about to begin, with fascism in power, when Mussolini had a strong base of support, the proletarian masses were inert and the PCI had a very small network of underground militants, with some of the main leaders in jail, was completely divorced from the objective situation.
In 1930, in fact, an opposition to Togliatti’s line began to form, led by three of the seven members of the PCI’s Politburo. Tresso, Leonetti and Ravazzoli opposed the theory of social fascism, advocating instead the positions taken by Trotsky and the International Opposition.
The “three” supported many of the fundamental elements of the Lyon Theses against the sectarian turn of the PCI under Bordiga’s leadership. But in the debate, Togliatti resorted to insults instead of arguments, and the three were rapidly expelled, together with thirty or so other leading figures in the party.
According to the testimony of some of his comrades, it would appear that Gramsci was negatively affected by the expulsion of the three. Tresso had been one of his favourite mentees, but perhaps the thing that troubled him the most was that he shared some of the opinions of the expelled comrades.
The PCI itself admitted in the 1960s that Gramsci in that period would not have shared the positions of the party and of the Comintern. According to a report written by a party activist, Athos Lisa, in 1933, Gramsci viewed indignantly the superficial judgment of some communists who saw the collapse of fascism as imminent and believed Italy would transition seamlessly from a fascist dictatorship to a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Gramsci’s brother, Gennaro, would testify many years later that Antonio agreed with Leonetti, Tresso and Ravazzoli, did not defend their expulsion, and did not accept the line of the Comintern. According to a testimonial by Sandro Pertini, Gramsci did not agree with the idea of “social fascism” either.
It is not a coincidence, in fact, that in an essay written in prison, Gramsci formulated the demand for a Constituent Assembly to be elected on the basis of universal suffrage, direct and secret ballots, open to citizens of both sexes aged 18 and above, which was the same demand the three indicated in a letter they wrote to Trotsky in 1930.
In his reply to this letter, Trotsky wrote “it is precisely with the aid of these transitional slogans, from which the need of a proletarian dictatorship emerges, that the communist vanguard will have to conquer the entirety of the working class and that the latter will have to unify around itself all the exploited masses of the nation.”
In fact, Trotsky and Gramsci were the only two leaders internationally who were able to give a valid characterisation of fascism, not only as capitalist reaction, but as a mass movement of the urban and rural petit bourgeoisie aimed at violently smashing the organised workers’ movement, from its parties to its trade unions, and even its cooperatives and recreational circles.
We cannot know what would have happened if Gramsci had not been in prison during the Third Period turn; perhaps he would have joined the Left Opposition, or perhaps he would have made an appeal for “party unity” as he had done in 1926.
The point is, however, that Gramsci, in terrible conditions, isolated and with extreme difficulties in receiving information, developed a position that was much more correct than that of the Comintern leaders who were immersed in the political struggle and had at their disposal the experience and information provided by several mass parties to help them in their orientation.
This is telling of Gramsci’s political greatness, but also of the disasters of Stalinism in the workers’ movement.

The Prison Notebooks

In the ten years he spent in prison, Gramsci wrote extensively. The Prison Notebooks, published for the first time in 1948, were written by Gramsci under surveillance from fascist censorship. Because of this, the language he is forced to use is often ambiguous and has a more sociological and not political character. In fact, the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks is very different from the Gramsci of The New Order or the Lyon Theses.
There are nonetheless extremely interesting reflections in the Notebooks that have been used (particularly by the PCI leaders in the postwar period) to claim that Gramsci was in the process of developing a gradualist conception of the seizure of political power by the workers.
The most controversial element in this sphere is the interpretation of the concept of hegemony.
First and foremost, it must be said that the concept of hegemony is not exclusively a Gramscian one, as it was part of the theoretical heritage of Russian Social Democracy already at the beginning of the 20th century.
The word “hegemony” is also used in the Theses from the Third Congress of the Comintern, in the sense of the proletariat assuming the leading role at the helm of the movement of all oppressed classes in the struggle against capital.
In a passage from the Theses from the Fourth Congress the concept is extended and the term “hegemony” is used to define the supremacy that the bourgeoisie has over the proletariat under capitalism.
That is the only example of the term hegemony being used in that sense, and in some ways that was Gramsci’s starting point, from which he would develop a profound reflection on the bourgeois hegemony over the working classes.
The question that Gramsci attempts to analyse is what character the revolution should have in the West, where the bourgeoisie was indisputably more consolidated and entrenched than its Russian counterpart, and had built up a network of mechanisms to exercise social control, but also to garner consensus from the workers themselves. According to Gramsci: “In the East, the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relationship between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there was a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks (…)”
What revolutionary strategy is necessary for the West? Gramsci considers a “war of movement”, used in the Russian Revolution, impractical and maintains that the correct tactic is a “war of position”. He declares that Lenin had also reached this conclusion and that the united front tactic was Lenin’s response to this question.
In this regard he criticises Trotsky, in our opinion unfairly, when defining the theory of permanent revolution, the theory of the war of movement and of the frontal collision on the political and military front. Gramsci incorrectly equates Trotsky to Bordiga and the German Communists, who in March 1921 carried out an insurrection without the support of the masses, which led to enormous losses and a consequent defeat of the German Communist Party (KPD), who paid an incredibly high price for this putschist behaviour.
This demonstrates that Gramsci had probably never read “The Permanent Revolution”. His interpretation of the theory is arbitrary at best, if we consider that Trotsky was together with Lenin one of the main architects of the united front tactic, that he criticised sharply the sectarian behaviour of the German Communists in March 1921, and as his military writings show, was also opposed to the “offensive theorists” like Frunze and Tukhachevsky on the military plane.
But, apart from the fact that in pre-revolutionary Russia civil society wasn’t so “gelatinous” after all, Gramsci is actually asking himself a question that cannot easily be answered in isolation in his Turi prison. In fact, he will never give a definitive answer to the problem of the revolution in the West.
Certainly one of the key elements of his reflections is the question of consensus. At one point in the Notebooks, Gramsci seems to claim (although there are contradictory passages) that in the West the party must conquer a wider consensus than in 1917 Russia because the enemy is much stronger and governs more through consensus than coercion. In a sense, this is without doubt true in a parliamentary democracy, even though consensus and coercion are two sides of the same coin that the bourgeois use to maintain their control, alternating them according to the situation.
The same is true of the revolution. In the revolutionary process, the working class becomes the hegemonic power in society but the winning of consensus must necessarily be combined with the use of force (naturally, on a mass basis and not of an individual character: the force of a majority against a minority) against the forces of reaction hostile to the revolution.
The fact that the working class must win the consensus of the majority of the population, in some cases even by granting concessions to the middle classes once in power (the example of the NEP demonstrates this) does not mean that the transformation of society mustn’t happen in a revolutionary way through an insurrection.
This classic Marxist conception of the state isn’t questioned anywhere in the Notebooks and that is the proof of the revolutionary and communist nature of Gramsci’s thought.
It should be added to this that Gramsci’s conception of the party is the typical one of a revolutionary party made up of educated Marxist cadres. When he talks about a party completely made up of intellectuals, he doesn’t mean, obviously, that its doors should be shut to the workers or to the masses in general. He is referring to a party with a high political level, not simply made up of members on paper but conscious militants who participate and contribute to every aspect of party activity.
But Gramsci also has the huge merit of having provided us with a history of the Italian Risorgimento from a proletarian point of view, against the rhetoric of the unification of Italy given by the bourgeois, unlike Marx and Engels who, knowing little of the Italian reality, were very limited in this sense, especially in the criticism of the counterrevolutionary role played in the Risorgimento by the democrats Mazzini and Garibaldi, who were initially members of the First International.
Gramsci gives a merciless analysis of the subordination of Garibaldi and the democrats to the liberals led by Cavour and the monarchy. The Risorgimento was a bourgeois revolution that was not completed because of the cowardice of the Italian bourgeoisie who did not have the courage to get rid of the King and the nobility.
Because of its late entry onto the global stage and because of its economic weakness, the Italian bourgeoisie was very different to the French Jacobins and, instead of attacking the aristocracy head-on, decided in the end to ally itself with it. The democrats submitted to this alliance and, in the final analysis, helped carry it out.
In fact, when the poor peasants, riding the wave of the arrival of Garibaldi’s “Mille” [Thousand] in Sicily, decided to occupy the land of the big landowners, carrying out one of the main tasks of the bourgeois revolution, they were massacred not by the Bourbons but by the troops of Garibaldi and Bixio themselves.
This historic betrayal lies at the root of the underdevelopment of southern Italy, from which according to Gramsci flowed the inability of the bourgeois to solve the agrarian question. This problem could only be solved by a socialist revolution, through an alliance between the proletariat and the peasants, an alliance on which the revolution had to rest. Thus for Gramsci, the problem of the underdeveloped south could not be solved under capitalism.
It is astonishing how these reflections are so relevant today, and what little audience they find in the Italian left, who celebrate Gramsci but without truly understanding his profound revolutionary message.
First published in FalceMartello n° 116, 19-5-1997