What Can Gramsci Teach Today’s Revolutionary Organizers in the U.S.
The darling of academic leftists, Antonio Gramsci has been dismissed by many a serious organizer as a totem of reformism and navel gazing. His dense manuscripts collect dust on the lowest corner of the revolutionary’s bookshelf, and they can’t be bothered to decipher this esoteric drivel — after all, there’s work to be done. Struggle to be waged. Why get bogged down in the musings of a mascot for opportunism?
We find that this attitude is misguided. It’s true that academics with little to no interest in communism have claimed Gramsci as their own, cherry-picking pieces of his work for their own ends. But, as it turns out, the esteemed Italian communist is worth a second look. Far from the obscure ideas of bourgeois intellectuals, Gramsci’s true contribution is as one of the key founders of one of the most formidable communist parties of his time, a party that doggedly resisted Italian fascism, culminating in their execution of Benito Mussolini.
We recognize that the indispensable political demand of our time is to establish a new revolutionary party of the proletariat, and Gramsci did just this. His ideas on how to wage revolution over the long term therefore demand continued engagement, and his work inspires and helps to guide the Austin Revolutionary Organizing Collective’s (AROC) mission.
In a time when orthodox Marxists were grappling with the failure of “inevitable revolution” to transpire in many capitalist states, Gramsci argued that it’s not inevitable at all, and identified one of the important reasons that revolution had failed in the west:
“In the East the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation 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 stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks.”
The “powerful system” he’s referring to is the capitalist State’s stranglehold on civil life — pretenses of democratic processes, plus an educational system, media outlets; cultural, and non-governmental social and political institutions that reinforce the power of the prevailing capitalist doctrine. In other words, the ruling class had hegemony.
It is vital for organizers to understand the mechanics of hegemony and how it contributes to the continued passivity of the working class. For instance, if we want to establish a communist movement in Texas, we have to work against an educational system and all-encompassing cultural apparatus that conceals or makes palatable the brutal colonization that our government perpetrated on this stolen land. We have to work against history textbooks and popular narratives that glorify the creation of an empire that waged genocide here in the name of “Manifest Destiny” and “the American Dream.” We have to combat media outlets that spread pro-business propaganda and that ignore or downplay the continued subjugation of the working class, undocumented immigrants, prison slaves, and the Third World. We must contend with “left” and liberal political institutions which drive our work into reforms that only strengthen the imperialist state.
This hegemonic power is the primary mechanism for capitalist reproduction in our time and place, and therefore our primary threat is not direct repression (though that remains a real risk for us), but rather a slide into opportunism and liberal defanging. Without this kind of analysis, we can’t hope to shift the balance of forces in our favor and sustain our struggle long enough to wage revolution.
Gramsci demonstrated that in order to begin building proletarian power to these ends, it is necessary to build proletarian counter-hegemony. He framed this necessity within the context of military strategy: assessing objective and subjective conditions and knowing when to engage in a “war of position” or a “war of maneuver.”
Objective conditions are external factors that lie outside our control, such as the quantity of opposing forces and their strategic advantages (e.g. hegemony). They include the historical development of production and the political institutions arising from it. Subjective conditions, on the other hand, are the factors within our control: what are our resources; what can we improve upon or change to give ourselves an advantage? Most importantly, they reflect our progress toward a revolutionary party and its strength after it is finally established.
When objective conditions are not in our favor, they necessitate a war of position. This entails a defensive strategy and a focus on developing those subjective conditions, building up our resources and working to change the balance of forces in our favor. There is a dialectical relationship at play here, of course, as the objective conditions entail the subjective forces, which are in turn shaped by the objective situation in which they arise.
We know with certainty that the objective conditions will in fact reach crisis points because of the internal contradictions within capitalist development, and when these moments arise and our subjective forces are sufficiently developed, we can pivot to a war of maneuver. Gramsci puts it this way:
“The immediate economic element (crises, etc.) is seen as the field artillery which in war opens a breach in the enemy’s defences — a breach sufficient for one’s own troops to rush in and obtain a definitive (strategic) victory, or at least an important victory in the context of the strategic line. Naturally the effects of immediate economic factors in historical science are held to be far more complex than the effects of heavy artillery in a war of manoeuvre, since they are conceived of as having a double effect: 1. they breach the enemy’s defences, after throwing him into disarray and causing him to lose faith in himself, his forces, and his future; 2. in a flash they organise one’s own troops and create the necessary cadres — or at least in a flash they put the existing cadres (formed, until that moment, by the general historical process) in positions which enable them to encadre one’s scattered forces; 3. in a flash they bring about the necessary ideological concentration on the common objective to be achieved.”
The above framework is a useful lens for analyzing historical successes and failures on the left, as well as for assessing our current conditions. For example, the New Communist Movement — the last time Marxist-Leninist politics had as much energy in the U.S. as they seem to today — failed to correctly assess their objective conditions and the role their subjective forces could (or should) play in them. They assumed that globalized capitalism and white supremacy’s destruction was historically imminent — the breach was going to open wide at any moment — and therefore could be accelerated by their small groups of revolutionaries. They prepared relentlessly for a war of maneuver.
We can only now look back and say that there was a globalized reactionary backlash against revolutionary movements that fundamentally altered their trajectory and chances for success. Had they recognized this and focused instead on a war of position, developing their cadre and entrenching themselves among exploited and oppressed communities, then later moments of crisis might have had the subjective forces necessary to alter class relations in a powerful way.
For our own conditions, it is clear that we are in a period where war of position is the general task at hand, and suggestions that we are in a period of “strategic offensive” in the global revolutionary movement or that a great revolutionary crisis is imminent are idealist errors. Imperialist hegemony is extremely well-established, and crises at the moment seem to only evoke disruptive mass forces internal to its logic — fascist and other reactionary movements. Our work must entail building proletarian hegemony through Mass Line organizing so we can eventually establish the basic institution of communist subjectivity: the communist party.
Gramsci has much to teach us about reactionary and idealist errors of these sorts, particularly in his critique of Georges Sorel, which has special resonance today. Sorel was a French theorist of the early 20th Century, a contemporary of Gramsci’s whose work was seminal for both syndicalism and fascism. Sorel theorized that a “social myth” would energize a revolutionary movement. As Gramsci summarizes it, this concept is “expressed neither in the form of a cold utopia nor as learned theorising, but rather by a creation of concrete phantasy which acts on a dispersed and shattered people to arouse and organise its collective will.”
In the case of the syndicalist movement, that myth was the general strike; for European fascists, the myth was an ethnostate. Gramsci recognizes the power of a social myth, but notes that a myth by itself isn’t enough to carry the masses through revolution.
“How could an instrument conceivably be effective if, as in Sorel’s vision of things, it leaves the collective will in the primitive and elementary phase of its mere formation… Will not that collective will, with so rudimentary a formation, at once cease to exist, scattering into an infinity of individual wills which in the positive phase then follow separate and conflicting paths?”
Individuals who unite around some vague image aren’t likely to agree on the concrete, finer details of how revolution should be waged and how communism should be made, especially if these individuals aren’t organized into a cohesive party. Such a loose, idealist formation has the appearance, but not the substance, of a collective will, and it falls apart as quickly as it began.
What’s also concerning about Sorel’s vision is his over-reliance on pathos at the expense of real analysis. To quote Sorel:
“Appeal must be made to collections of images which, taken together and through intuition alone, before any considered analyses are made, are capable of evoking the mass of sentiments which correspond to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by socialism against modern society.”
The Sorelian myth serves as a fetish or an idol, which unites people by a religious fervor. This fetishization is usually accompanied by the same dogmatic thinking that characterizes commandist sects. These commandists are the types who parrot the rhetoric of bygone revolutionaries without understanding the historical context in which they existed. By thinking dogmatically, they elevate their political theories to an abstract set of principles, i.e. an idealist philosophy. If we are trying to assess conditions through the lens of idealism (in the Marxist sense of the word), our assessment will be completely inaccurate, and we’re doomed to fail.
Even worse, idealism of this sort ultimately ends up reactionary — every time. Immaterial theory always entails a leap of faith somewhere, an essentialist explanation of “that’s just the way things are.” This drives these movements or sects into becoming a sort of religious faith, more about identity than strategy. Any outside critique feels like a vicious personal attack, with those who already share a very specific set of views the only true revolutionaries — everyone else is an enemy. Context and perspective become entirely distorted, and other communists become the primary enemy, as opposed to the capitalists.
Gramsci linked such dogmatism to errors of spontaneism and economism, the two most basic “leaps of faith.” Spontaneism is the belief that the masses will spontaneously revolt against their government without being organized into a cohesive body first, whereas economism frames class struggle almost solely on economic gains, usually through trade unionism, assuming that fundamental political change will follow sooner or later. What these concepts have in common are two false assumptions:
- the ideal conditions for toppling capitalism will eventually arise of their accord, and
- there is a distinction between political society (government) and civil society (the economic sphere).
The first assumption has been addressed earlier in this essay, but let’s take a deeper dive into the second. Gramsci says
“(I)t should be considered whether economism, in its most developed form, is not a direct descendant of liberalism, having very little connection with the philosophy of praxis even in its origins — and what connection it had only extrinsic and purely verbal.”
This is a good example of how Gramsci’s attempts at circumventing prison censorship can make his writing difficult to understand. “The philosophy of praxis” was his codename for Marxism, and so Gramsci says here that economism is not Marxist or revolutionary at all, but rather liberalism with “extrinsic and purely verbal” elements of actual leftism. In our own time we can see this is true, as economistic priorities of our moment — ”Medicare for All,” a $15 minimum wage, the so-called Green New Deal — all remain entirely inscribed within the bourgeois state, reliant upon imperialist extraction from the Third World to cover their bottom line, and strategically focused on electing candidates from liberal political parties.
As Gramsci went on to say, “What is at stake is a rotation in governmental office of the ruling-class parties, not the foundation and organisation of a new political society, and even less of a new type of civil society.” For any organization or individual calling themselves revolutionaries, these efforts must be seen as just as contrary to our aims as sectarian excess.
The false dichotomy between State and civil society also leads to a weak and confused understanding of power dynamics and hierarchies. Gramsci wades through the muddy discourse around power hierarchies by drawing a clear distinction between democratic centralism and what he refers to pejoratively as “bureaucratic centralism.” In the broad sense, democratic centralism refers to any organization — be it a nation-state, political party, or loose collective — where all members can participate in decision-making processes, but ultimately all members commit to following the decision that is collectively reached. It can be summed up by the phrase “freedom of debate, unity of action.”
Bureaucratic centralism, on the other hand, creates the illusion of democracy while placing the vast majority of decision-making power in relatively few hands:
“The prevalence of bureaucratic centralism in the State indicates that the leading group is saturated, that it is turning into a narrow clique which tends to perpetuate its selfish privileges by controlling or even by stifling the birth of oppositional forces — even if these forces are homogeneous with the fundamental dominant interests.”
Intent on perpetuating the same static administrative structure, bureaucratic centralism discourages real debate and meaningful critique within a revolutionary party. In this structure, the empowered clique or stratum maintains dominance for its own sake and fights tooth and nail against any change that might meaningfully alter that power imbalance. In other words, it is incapable of adapting to the always-developing material conditions, and this inflexibility makes it prone to collapse.
This pitfall is not unique to traditional State-ists or Marxists. Anarchist collectives — even those that disavow democratic centralism and promote individual autonomy — are not immune. There will always be organic (if subtle and informal) social hierarchies within such collectives. Members with social capital, persuasive ability, and the trust of their comrades have more de-facto power in decision-making processes. Cliques can form that are able to pressure other members to fall in line, and without formal leadership and administration, there is no easy way to systematically prevent this power imbalance from occurring.
As soon as the de facto leadership begins to focus on the maintenance of their own power or even just the perpetuation of the institution for its own sake, substituting these for the larger aims of the membership at large (not to mention their class base), bureaucratic centralism has supplanted democratic centralism.
Just as problematic and unscalable as loose, informal structures are those that are designed abstractly without assessing the actual interpersonal dynamics at play. Trying to make a group of people adhere to some preconceived idea of how every political organization ought to be structured is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
“Democratic centralism offers an elastic formula, which can be embodied in many diverse forms; it comes alive in so far as it is interpreted and continually adapted to necessity. It consists in the critical pursuit of what is identical in seeming diversity of form and on the other hand of what is distinct and even opposed in apparent uniformity, in order to organise and interconnect closely that which is similar, but in such a way that the organising and the interconnecting appear to be a practical and ‘inductive’ necessity, experimental, and not the result of a rationalistic, deductive, abstract process — i.e. one typical of pure intellectuals (or pure asses).”
The trick is to find an organic and adaptable model of democratic centralism. This is one of our most important tasks. One lead we’ve identified in this case: the Mass Line. By bringing the objective politics of proletarian power into contact with the immediate experience of colonized, exploited, and oppressed people for the sake of building institutions which can follow their lead and develop their power — in large part by identifying and cultivating organic intellectuals among the class — we can begin to build democratic institutions capable of leading revolutionary struggles.
To succeed at revolution, we have to follow key pieces of Gramsci’s advice. We have to learn how to improve our subjective conditions and seize hegemony. This entails building a scalable, cohesive Party that can adapt to changing conditions by developing an organic model of democratic centralism.
As Gramsci has taught us, revolution is not inevitable. With climate crisis approaching a point of no return, we have two options:
- allow the capitalist class to destroy the earth’s resources until it is an uninhabited wasteland; or
- take a page from Gramsci’s book and stop waiting for the perfect conditions to arise for revolution, and work to create those conditions and successfully wage revolution in our lifetime.
AROC is humbly moving upon that path today, and we gratefully study Gramsci and his experience for the sake of accomplishing his dream and ours: a communist future.
All Gramsci quotations cited in this article can be found in The Prison Notebooks, linked here.