Gramsci and the party

Murray Kane

Although only 70 pages long, Martin Thomas’ Antonio Gramsci: Working-Class Revolutionary is remarkable in containing more insights than many a full length book on Gramsci.

In five short essays, Martin Thomas expertly summarises a mass of historical material relating to Gramsci’s political life, including evidence for the relationship between Gramsci and Trotsky and about Gramsci’s thoughts on Stalinism. He offers a succinct critique of the various interpretations and misinterpretations of Gramsci’s work by subsequent left-wing political formations (the Italian CP from the 50s, the New Left in the 60’s, the “Eurocommunists” in the 70’s, and later various “post-Marxists”), particularly in relation to the key concepts of “hegemony”, “integral state”, “East/West divide”, “war of position”, “passive revolution”, and perhaps most fundamentally, in connection with the nature of the revolutionary party.

Intriguingly, the booklet is complicated by the inclusion of an extended interview with Peter Thomas in relation to his book The Gramscian Moment, and two of Martin Thomas’s essays — “The Revolutionary Socialist as Democratic Philosopher” and “Anderson’s Antinomies” — constitute direct responses to The Gramscian Moment.

I say “complicated”, because whereas Martin Thomas is clear, direct, and keen to raise sharp questions about what Gramsci’s concepts mean and how they might be applied in the present by activists, Peter Thomas devotes his concentration to “problematising” Gramsci’s thought and finding ways to sidestep conclusions. I am surely not the only one who will find that Peter Thomas renders Gramsci’s thought so dense and nebulous that the key concepts lose coherence.

The benefit of this however is that in his repeated attempts to avoid giving concrete answers, Peter Thomas provides an excellent foil for Martin Thomas’s questions, which become more penetrating as the interview (which took place over three years) proceeds.

For those who are already familiar with Gramsci’s work, this interview will provide much food for thought; but the three stand-alone essays by Martin Thomas which introduce and conclude the collection — “Gramsci’s Life”; “Gramsci and ‘post-Marxism’”; “Gramsci and Trotsky” — constitute a very useful resource in their own right.

The first commences with fascinating comparative details about the economies of Italy and Russia in the period before the First World War as context for a presentation of Gramsci’s early political career as a journalist for the Socialist Party press, as editor of Ordine Nuovo, and as a central figure in the Turin factory council movement. Judiciously selected facts and quotations are used to illuminate Gramsci’s decisions when faced with the competing tendencies of conservatism and ultra-leftism inside the Italian Socialist Party, as well as his role in the emergence of the Italian Communist Party, and his work between incarceration and death (1926–1937) which resulted in the immense body of writings that have survived as the Prison Notebooks. The essay concludes with a series of quotations illustrating Gramsci’s conviction that a revolutionary party is absolutely necessary in the struggle for socialism.

The second of the independent essays — “Gramsci and Trotsky” — considers Gramsci’s meetings with Trotsky in Moscow and the factors bearing upon his surprising misunderstanding of Trotsky as an ultra-leftist, as well as their respective appraisals of the rise of Stalinism. What emerges is a field of fundamental agreement between the two on the kind of party and the kind of strategy that those committed to revolution from below would have to hold on to in order to negotiate the immense difficulties caused by the defeats of the late 20s and 30s.

For those who are already largely familiar with Gramsci and Trotsky’s perspectives, and don’t need to be convinced of their compatibility with each other and with the tradition that organisations such as Workers’ Liberty keep alive today, the insights offered are more subtle. It is worth noting, for example, that despite the fact that Gramsci and Trotsky took for granted that a serious socialist would operate within a revolutionary party, they shared a realistic and generous attitude towards “sympathisers” and “fellow travellers”, and in a word, saw it as important to encourage and accept different types of commitment from people who were drawn towards the socialist banner.

Martin Thomas’s third independent essay, “Gramsci and Post-Marxism”, presents a concise critique of left-wing academic thought over the last 25 years, and charts the rise and dissipation of the energy of this tendency by situating it inside an account of the economic and political developments brought about by the intensification of globalisation during this period.

The essay focuses on the work of Laclau and Mouffe, and ties their explicit rejection of both Marx and Lenin to their one-sided and tendentious appropriation of Gramsci’s use of the concept of “hegemony”, the more accurate and useful interpretation of which is given a full treatment in the sections in which Martin Thomas and Peter Thomas are in dialogue.

Amid all this material, there are two things that Martin Thomas seeks to emphasise and demonstrate — that Gramsci himself was a revolutionary socialist who shared the fundamental perspectives of Marx and Lenin on the nature of capitalist societies, and that mass working-class activity and organization is central to the struggle to overcome and transform these societies into socialist ones.

This has of course been argued before, but for those who have not read a biography (e.g. Fiori’s) in conjunction with Gramsci’s writings, then these essays provide an admirable introduction. The booklet works at a number of levels, then, but the point of real interest in the essays is what they have to say about the revolutionary party and the kind of organisational perspectives which the most active socialists in the present moment should seek to develop, and what they might learn from a study of Gramsci’s work. On almost every page there is reference to this in one way or another.

Martin Thomas presents the revolutionary party as central to the way one thinks about socialism, but also takes pains to bring out the historical dynamics underlying the very flexible perspectives that Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci developed about the party when the struggle was at its height in the period from the end of World War One to the rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s.

While remaining clear about the general principles of the centrality of the revolutionary party and absolute necessity of mass working-class involvement in creating, developing and organising this party, Martin Thomas is also very clear that with the passing of time and the transformation of the composition, terrain and consciousness of the working class by the multiple processes of globalisation, that there are questions as to what this actually means in the here and now.

It would seem that Peter Thomas is interested in the same question, but as already remarked, despite continual attempts to draw him into debate in the course of the interview, he is tentative and inclined to sidestep practical suggestions about “what is to be done”. He chooses his words carefully and tends to suggest that much preparatory work needs to be done before the issue really comes onto the agenda again. He emphasises the need to “problematise’ the form that the party, or “Modern Prince”, or “hegemonic apparatus” might take.

The section of the interview entitled “The Decisive Element” is characteristic and brings these differences in viewpoint to light.

Martin Thomas says: “Yes, the revolutionary political party is not an already-finished thing, with a ‘finished programme’ and so on, which then just radiates out and ‘colonises’ other groups...

“But surely the party is central. It is the organised body of activists who are systematically and collectively politically active in a continuous way, not just at high points; who, with a continuously-developed and sustained theoretical basis, most resist the ‘conceptions of the world mechanically imposed by the external environment’”...

To which Peter Thomas responds: “Again, the question is: what type of party? And further: how is this party formed? Gramsci was well aware that, in the broader sense, there is nobody without a party, or nobody who is not in a certain way a ‘partisan’, even if only in a practical state, of certain choices, values and interests they share with others in similar social positions. However... it is not a case, it seems to me, of stating that, regardless of complicating and intervening factors, the party remains ‘central’, in either the first or the last instance... Rather than conceiving of the party as a ‘centre’, it might be better in this Gramscian perspective to think of such explicitly institutional-political coordinating and organising functions as the tip of the iceberg of the Modern Prince, the visible 10 % supported by the invisible 90% below the waterline.”

For Peter Thomas, Gramsci is interested in the revolutionary party as a “dynamic social relation of democratic pedagogy”, yet rather than giving practical examples of the kind of institutions or situations that might give rise to this social relation (the closest we get to this is a cursory list: “institutions inside the trade-union movement, … even including sporting associations, community groupings and so forth”), Peter Thomas renders his account even less coherent by problematising the notion of the revolutionary party as a centre, and replacing this with the idea that it be seen as “the tip of the iceberg”.

Quite how this metaphor is intended to enhance our conception of the political party I cannot say, for the point about the revolutionary party constituting a “centre” is really a dynamic or dialectical question of how decision-making complexes form an identity by feeding back upon each other and coming together more or less organically to form and enact a coherent transformative strategy. On the other hand, the tip of an iceberg is joined mechanically and inflexibly to the bulk of the ice that forms it, and stands proud of the surface in the Arctic winds while the ice below invisibly experiences the relative warmth of the sea waters.

There is no room for dynamism of any sort with an iceberg other than the kind of melting that is associated with global warming, and that is not an inspiring connotation.

My own view, which has only been strengthened by reading the work of Martin Thomas and Peter Thomas on Gramsci, is that there is something of a paradox in Gramsci’s survival as a text or source of ideas across so many university disciplines, and that this stems partly from the creative misinterpretations analysed by Martin Thomas, but also, more directly, from the usefulness and flexibility of Gramsci’s conceptual formulations on the complexity of social groupings and the constitution of relationships with interpenetrating material and ideological layers.

For people on the left from the 60’s onwards, Gramsci perhaps offered a resource with a different quality to it than what could elsewhere be found among the giants of the Marxist tradition: a more compassionate voice, even if this seems hard to reconcile with Gramsci’s resoluteness and commitment. There is an implicit “patience” in Gramsci — for different levels of knowledge and development in the subaltern, and a correspondingly wider and less direct approach to questions of education and political involvement, although this is also enigmatic.

It may be the case that Gramsci’s imprisonment, disability and sickness, in conjunction with the particularities of his personality, tended to imbue his prison writings with a mythological “for eternity” (“für ewig”) dimension that evokes a compassionate response even, or especially, in periods of defeat and downturn. The writings of Trotsky and Lenin, and even Marx, are tools forged for the impact of the fight which come in to their own when the struggle becomes more overt.

If Peter Thomas’s metaphor of the iceberg is to stand, then perhaps Gramsci is what we should read when the iceberg is melting; Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, when the sea is starting to freeze and the iceberg coming together beneath its revolutionary tip.