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The article below is a Commentary piece. Articles posted in the Commentary section do not necessarily reflect the views of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Editorial Board of Liberation.
Remembering Antonio Gramsci: Italian revolutionary and writer
By William West
August 20, 2012
Jan. 22 marks the birthday of Antonio Gramsci, a seminal Marxist thinker. Gramsci was a key activist in Italy during the 1920s. His often misunderstood ideas remain relevant today.
Gramsci moved from rural Sardinia to industrialized Turin in 1911. He saw that while both the workers and the peasants were being exploited, their world-views were very different, and this led to distrust between these two classes. Gramsci was convinced that if workers and peasants could fight together, capitalism could be overthrown in Italy. He wondered how these groups could be made to view their interests as one.
Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), which strove for socialist reform through electoral means. There were food shortages and riots in 1919. Soviets (workers councils) were set up in many cities. The PSI focused on winning seats in Parliament and did not participate in the soviets. Gramsci saw the need to begin operating independently.
He went to Turin's factories to organize workers' councils that would stay on-site after-hours to study Marxism. Gramsci hoped the councils would help create a fertile environment for a new revolutionary party to grow. The councils started organizing marches and strikes around political issues, and successfully demanded pay raises. The industrial capitalists attacked the councils by locking the workers out of the factories. When unions started negotiating to re-open them, the factory owners demanded an end to the councils. In response, Gramsci and his comrades proposed a general strike throughout Turin. They hoped that a successful strike would help spread the movement throughout Italy.
Most of the workers of Turin participated in the strike. The bosses formed "Commissions of Civil Defense" in which they, their families and friends volunteered to perform civil services, such as distributing food and mail to the population of Turin, thereby blunting the effect of the strike. They made themselves appear to the population of Turin as benefactors of society. The masses were led to believe their interests were tied to the welfare of the city's rich, rather than to that of the striking workers.
By the summer of 1920, the Italian workers' movement was on the defensive. The factory owners demanded increased insurance premiums and a ban on overtime. Throughout the country, workers took to "obstructionism"—intentionally working slowly, or engaging in what is known in the United States as a "slowdown." The owners threatened mass lockouts. In response, more than 400,000 people occupied their workplaces throughout Italy in September 1920. Workers' councils oversaw production and different factories communicated with each other to provide for the needs of the people on a national scale.
Gramsci celebrated the occupation movement but warned against viewing it as a revolution. So long as the state was still in the service of the capitalist class, the workers would eventually see their organizations overthrown.
The parliamentary members of the PSI agreed to exert their influence to quell the movement in exchange for union control of the factories. Gramsci took from this that even when a revolutionary situation presented itself, actual revolution was impossible without a well-developed revolutionary party. He helped found the Communist Party of Italy in 1921. Gramsci viewed union control of the factories still under capitalist ownership as counter-revolutionary, because the Italian workers might come to view themselves as invested in the state of the capitalists who exploited them, thus losing their revolutionary potential.
Union control, however, never came about, as the capitalists paid off rightist parliamentarians and fascist thugs to oppose it. As the fascist movement—headed by Benito Mussolini, formerly a leading member of the PSI—became more powerful, the Soviet Union advised the Italian left to form a united front to oppose fascism.
Gramsci sought to form an alliance between communists, socialists and anarchists, but ideological divisions made this impossible. The fascists took over and outlawed both the PSI and the CPI. In 1926, Gramsci was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. After suffering years of harsh imprisonment in solitary confinement, he was conditionally released from prison in 1934 due to his declining health. Gramsci died three years later, in 1937.
Gramsci wrote over 3,000 pages on politics during his years of imprisonment. He believed that the capitalist class had been able to derail revolution in Italy because the peasants had not been made to see their struggle as one with that of the urban proletariat. If they had, the entire nation might have joined in striking against capitalism. Gramsci noted how seizing a revolutionary opportunity from a capitalist crisis depended on developing a sense of unity between different classes and sectors of classes.
This sense of unity between different groups, which Gramsci called a "historic bloc," had been successfully articulated by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution
Those oppressed by capitalism are comprised of different groups with unique life experiences. Although these groups have come to think of themselves as separate from each other, Gramsci believed they must come to understand themselves as one exploited totality.
This sense of unity between different groups, which Gramsci called a "historic bloc," had been successfully articulated by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks' emphasis on the struggle of all exploited classes against national oppression made unity in the Russian Empire possible. Gramsci referred to the successful formation of a historic bloc as "hegemony."
In Italy, however, the capitalist class had formed a historic bloc with the peasants and sectors of more-privileged workers. They peasants and these workers were convinced that their interests lay with the capitalist class rather than the factory workers. Gramsci deduced that for a revolution to be successful in an advanced capitalist society, a historic bloc would have to be formed between the various sectors of exploited and oppressed.
In recent months, we have witnessed initial steps in the direction of what Gramsci would have called the formation of a hegemonic operation. The mantra of the Occupy Wall Street movement—"We are the 99 percent!"—articulates a unity between all but the most privileged in U.S. society—the tiny elite of banks and corporations—the 1 percent.
Rather than expressing the needs of the majority as dependent on the capitalists—the "job-creators" as the right wing calls them—the Occupy Wall Street movement expresses a shared interest between even relatively highly paid "white-collar" workers and the most oppressed members of our society.
Of course, whether or not the Occupy movement evolves into a "historic bloc" that can ultimately overthrow the capitalist system will depend on whether it can move beyond expressing the rightful grievances of the majority against the capitalist class to adopting a working-class program.
Gramsci's ideas misappropriated by 'post-Marxists'
Unfortunately, Gramsci's name has become associated in some circles with counterrevolutionary ideas. In their book "Hegemony and Socialist Strategy," published in 1985, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe hijacked Gramsci's theories to claim that class struggle was no longer viable, and in the process anointed themselves "post-Marxists."
Workers have, according to Laclau and Mouffe, formed a historic bloc with the capitalists through the labor movement, thus becoming invested in the capitalist state. According to the post-Marxist narrative, workers under advanced capitalism are not simply workers but have also become consumers and administrators.
What is needed is not revolution, Laclau and Mouffe claim, but the expansion of participatory democracy to oppressed minorities, who will learn to form their own historic blocs with the "democratic" capitalist state.
What these arguments ignore is that neither "participatory democracy" nor the class-conciliatory line of the labor movement can alter the function of the capitalist state as an instrument of repression against the working class. Advanced capitalist countries are run under the dictatorship of the capitalist class, though imperialist super-profits have made possible what could be termed a "historic bloc" between the capitalists and organized labor. But as evident from the severe weakening of most unions over the past few decades, this bloc has not served the longer-term interests of the working class and is doomed to collapse.
Gramsci, as a Marxist, would not view the participation of workers in capitalist institutions as truly democratic. No matter what possessions a high-paid worker may amass, everything can be taken away from that worker in a time of crisis. The capitalist class can take away every "right," including access to shelter and food, from these "liberated workers."
Further, by promoting divisive ideologies such as racism, sexism and homophobia, the ruling class does not just spread false consciousness but extracts extra profits. The end of national oppression will not come about as the result of workers from oppressed nationalities gaining access to a share of capitalist super-profits. It will come from all sectors of the working class rejecting all forms of exploitation and oppression, and overturning the capitalist system.
Despite the misappropriation of Gramsci's thought, revolutionaries should remember Gramsci as someone who dedicated his life to the struggle of the working class, and for his important contributions to Marxist analysis.
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