The AWL’s book, Antonio Gramsci: working-class revolutionary, has started some very fruitful discussions about what it means to be a Marxist in the present period. Martin Thomas has highlighted important conceptions from Gramsci, such as “the democratic philosopher” and “permanently active persuaders”, which sum up very crisply the way Marxist worker intellectuals interact with other workers and other social layers, learning as well as teaching, educating ourselves through struggling alongside others.
Another important contribution is to understand Gramsci in context. There is continuity between Gramsci’s thought when he was leader of the Italian Communist Party and the voluminous notebooks he produced in prison. These notebooks are themselves a dialogue with his earlier work as part of the Communist International, and with the wide range of fertile conceptions through up in the early 1920s, such as the united, transitional demands and the workers’ government. His later work can also be understood as a critique with the sectarian and destructive deviations of third period Stalinism. Above all Gramsci remained concerned with how to build a Marxist party in a period when capitalism had stabilised and the class struggle was in retreat.
A key element of continuity between Gramsci’s earlier and later writings, and between his evolving conceptions and the wider Lenin-Trotsky tradition, was the prominence he gave to the party as fusing the three fronts of class struggle. This insight was rescued from Engels by Lenin in his book, What is to be Done? (1902), but it sums up a core idea in the classical Marxist tradition. The following passages some up Gramsci’s assimilation of this conception, which he held to until his dying breath.
Introduction to the first course of the party school (1925)
In Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings (1921-1926), Lawrence and Wishart, 1978 p.287-88
"We know that the proletariat's struggle against capitalism is waged on three fronts: the economic, the political and the ideological. The economic struggle has three phases: resistance to capitalism, i.e. the elementary trade-union phase; the offensive against capitalism for workers' control of production; and the struggle to eliminate capitalism through socialisation.
“The political struggle too has three principal phases: the struggle to check the bourgeoisie's power in the parliamentary State, in other words to maintain or create a democratic situation, of equilibrium between the classes, which allows the proletariat to organise; the struggle to win power and create the workers' State, in other words a complex political activity through which the proletariat mobilises around it all the anti-capitalist social forces (first and foremost the peasant class) and leads them to victory; and the phase of dictatorship of the proletariat, organised as a ruling class to eliminate all the technical and social obstacles which prevent the realisation of communism.
“The economic struggle cannot be separated from the political struggle, nor can either of them be separated from the ideological struggle.
“In its first, trade-union phase, the economic struggle is spontaneous; in other words, it is born inevitably of the very situation in which the proletariat finds itself under the bourgeois order. But in itself, it is not revolutionary; in other words, it does not necessarily lead to the overthrow of capitalism...
“For the trade-union struggle to become a revolutionary factor, it is necessary for the proletariat to accompany it with political struggle: in other words, for the proletariat to be conscious of being the protagonist of a general struggle which touches all the most vital questions of social organisation; i.e. for it to be conscious that it is struggling for socialism...
“The element of consciousness is needed, the 'ideological' element: in other words, an understanding of the conditions of the struggle, the social relations in which the worker lives, the fundamental tendencies at work in the system of those relations, and the process of development which society undergoes as a result of the existence within it of insoluble antagonisms, etc.
“The three fronts of proletarian struggle are reduced to a single one for the party of the working class, which is this precisely because it resumes and represents all the demands of the general struggle.
“One certainly cannot ask every worker from the masses to be completely aware of the whole complex function which his class is destined to perform in the process of development of humanity. But this must be asked of members of the party.
“One cannot aim, before the conquest of the State, to change completely the consciousness of the entire working class... But the party can and must, as a whole, represent this higher consciousness."