Gramsci and the Russian Revolution

What did a young Antonio Gramsci think about the Russian Revolution?

Antonio Gramsci. Carta Maior

Eighty years ago, on April 27, 1937, Antonio Gramsci died after spending his last decade in fascist prison. Recognized later for the theoretical work in his prison notebooks, Gramsci’s political contributions started during the Great War when he was a young linguistic student at the University of Turin. Even then, his articles in the socialist press challenged not only the war, but Italian liberal, nationalist, and Catholic culture.

At the beginning of 1917 Gramsci was working as a journalist in a local Turin socialist newspaper, Il Grido del Popolo (The Cry of the People) and collaborating with the Piedmont edition of Avanti! (Forward!). In the first months after Russia’s February Revolution, news about it was still scarce in Italy. They were largely limited to the reproduction of articles from news agencies of London and Paris. In Avanti! some Russia coverage used to come out in the articles signed by “Junior,” a pseudonym of Vasilij Vasilevich Suchomlin, a Socialist  Revolutionary  Russian exile.

To supply the Italian Socialists with reliable information, the leadership of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) sent a telegram to Deputy Oddino Morgari, who was in Hague, asking him to go to Petrograd and get in touch with the revolutionaries. The trip failed and Morgari returned to Italy in July. On April 20, Avanti! published a note, written by Gramsci, about the congressman’s attempt to travel, calling him the “red ambassador.” His enthusiasm about the events in Russia was visible. Gramsci at this point considered that the potential strength of the Italian working class to face the war had a direct connection with the strength of the Russian proletariat. He thought that with the revolution in Russia, all international relations would be fundamentally changed.

The world war was going through its most intense moments and the military mobilization deeply affected the Italian people. Angelo Tasca, Umberto Terracini, and Palmiro Togliatti, friends and comrades of Gramsci, were summoned to the front — from which Gramsci was exempted due to his precarious health. That’s how journalism became his “front.” In the article about Morgari, Gramsci favorably quoted a statement of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, published in Italy by Corriere della Sera, calling for all governments in Europe to renounce their military offensive and follow only defensive maneuvers against the German attack. It was the position of “revolutionary defensism,” adopted by a large majority at the Pan-Russian Soviets Conference, in April. Avanti!, a few days later, would reproduce the resolution of this conference, translated by Junior.

But, as fresh news arrived, Gramsci began to develop his own interpretation on what was going on in Russia. In late April 1917, he published in Il Grido del Popolo an article entitled “Note sulla rivoluzione russa” (“Notes on the Russian Revolution”). Contrary to most Socialists at the time — who analyzed Russian events as a new French Revolution — Gramsci spoke of it as a “proletarian act” that would lead to socialism.

For Gramsci, the Russian Revolution was very different than the Jacobin model, seen as a mere “bourgeois revolution.” In interpreting the events of Petrograd, Gramsci exposed a political program for the future. In order to continue the movement, to move towards a workers’ revolution, the Russian socialists should definitely break with the Jacobin model — identified here with the systematic use of violence and with low cultural activity.

In the following months of 1917, Gramsci quickly aligned himself with the Bolsheviks, a position that also expressed his identity with the more radical and antiwar factions of the PSI. In a July 28 article, “I massimalisti russi” (“Russian maximalists”), Gramsci declared full support for Lenin and what he called the “maximalist” politics. This represented, in his opinion, “the continuity of the revolution, the rhythm of the revolution and, therefore, the revolution itself.” The maximalists were the incarnation of the “limiting idea of socialism,” without any commitment to the past.

Gramsci insisted that the revolution could not be interrupted, and should overcome the bourgeois world. For the journalist of Il Grido del Popolo, the biggest risk of all revolutions, especially of the Russian, was the development of the perception that the process had reached a point of closure. The maximalists were the force opposed to this interruption and, for this reason, “the last logical link of the revolutionary process.” In Gramsci’s reasoning, the whole revolutionary process was chained together and propelled in a movement where the strongest and most determined were able to push the weakest and most confused.

On August 5, a Russian delegation representing the soviets arrived in Turin, including Josif Goldemberg and Aleksandr Smirnov. The trip had been authorized by the Italian government, which had military hopes that Russia’s new government would engage in the war against Germany. After meeting with the Russian delegates, the Italian socialists expressed their perplexity with the ideas still prevailing within the Russian soviets. In August 11, the editor of Il Grido del Popolo questioned:

When we hear the delegates of the Russian soviet speaking in defense of continuing the war in the name of the revolution, we ask eagerly, instead, wouldn’t this mean to accept or even wish the war to go on to protect the interests of Russian capitalist supremacy against proletarian advances?

Despite this, the visit of the soviet delegates was an opportunity to propagandize the revolution and the Italian socialists seized this moment. After passing through Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Milan, the delegation returned to Turin. In front of the Casa del Popolo, forty thousand people welcomed the Russian Revolution in the first public demonstration in the city since the Great War began. On the balcony of the house, Giacinto Menotti Serrati, then leader of the maximalist wing within the party and firm opponent against the war, translated Goldemberg’s speech. As the delegate spoke, Serrati said that the Russians wanted the immediate end of the war and concluded the “translation” shouting “Viva the Italian revolution!” to which the crowd responded by shouting “Long live the Russian Revolution! Long live Lenin!”

Gramsci reported enthusiastically about this rally with the Russian delegates of the revolution at Il Grido del Popolo. The demonstration promoted, in his opinion, a true “spectacle of the proletarian and socialist forces in solidarity with the revolutionary Russia.” A few days later, this spectacle would take again the streets of Turin.

On the morning of August 22 there was no more bread in Turin, as a result of a long supply crisis provoked by the war. At noon the workers began to stop work in the factories of the city. At 5 PM, with almost all the factories stopped, the crowd began to march through the city looting bakeries and warehouses. The spontaneous insurrection, not called by anyone, spread and overwhelmed the city. The restoration of bread supply did not stop the movement, which quickly assumed a political character.

The following afternoon, power in the city was transferred to the army, which took control of the center of Turin. The looting and barricade construction continued on the outskirts of the city. In Borgo San Paolo, a Socialist stronghold, protesters ransacked and set fire to the church of San Bernardino. Police opened fire on the crowd. Conflicts intensified throughout August 24. In the morning, protesters tried unsuccessfully to reach the city center. A few hours later, they faced army fire from machine guns and armored cars. In the end, the trail of destruction amounted to twenty-four dead and more than 1,500 prisoners. The strike would continue on the following morning, but without the barricades. Then two dozen socialist leaders were arrested. The spontaneous rebellion came to an end.

Il Grido del Popolo did not circulate during these days. It would resume its activities on September 1, now under Gramsci’s direction, replacing the arrested socialist leader Maria Giudice. State censorship did not allow any reference to the insurrection to be published. Gramsci then took the opportunity to make a short reference to Lenin: “Kerensky represents historical fatality, but certainly Lenin represents the socialist becoming, and we are with him with all our enthusiasm.” It was a reference to the July days in Russia and the political persecution of the Bolsheviks that followed, which forced Lenin to take refuge in Finland.

A few days later, on September 15, when the troops led by General Lavr Kornilov marched towards Petrograd to restore the order against the revolution, Gramsci once again referred to that “revolution that occurred in the consciences.” And on September 29, Lenin was defined again as “the agitator of consciences, the alarm of sleeping souls.” The information available in Italy was still not reliable and filtered by Junior’s translations in Avanti!. At this point Gramsci still identified the Socialist Revolutionary Viktor Chernov as “the man who has a concrete program to action, a program that is completely socialist, one which doesn’t admit collaboration and which can’t be accepted by the bourgeoisie because it subverts the principle of private property, because it is finally the beginning of the social revolution.”

Meanwhile, the political crisis in Italy continued. After the Italian army defeat in the Battle of Caporetto on November 12, the Socialist parliamentary faction, led by Filippo Turati and Claudio Treves, took an openly nationalist stance and advocated defending the “nation,” distancing itself from the “neutralism” of the previous years. In the pages of Critica Sociale, Turati and Treves published an article that asserted the need for the proletariat to defend the country in time of danger.

The intransigent-revolutionary faction of the party, on the other side, also organized itself to face the new situation. In November, leaders of this faction called a secret meeting in Florence to discuss “the future orientation of our party.” Gramsci, who had begun to assume an important role in the party’s Turin section, participated in the meeting as a representative. At the meeting, he aligned himself with those, like Amadeo Bordiga, who thought it was necessary to act militantly, while Serrati and others spoke out for maintaining the old neutralist tactics. The meeting ended by reaffirming the principles of revolutionary internationalism and opposition to war, but without any practical guidance on what to do.

Gramsci interpreted August’s events in Turin in the light of the Russian Revolution, and upon returning from the meeting, he was convinced that the moment required action. Animated by this optimism and the echoes of the seizure of power in Russia by the Bolsheviks, he wrote in December the article “La rivoluzione contro Il Capitale‘” (“The revolution against ‘Capital'”), in which he declared: “The Bolshevik revolution was definitely the continuation of the general revolution of the Russian people.”

After having prevented the revolution from stagnating, Lenin’s partisans came to power in a position to establish “their dictatorship” and to elaborate the “socialist forms to which the revolution must ultimately conform in order to continue its development harmoniously.” In 1917 Gramsci didn’t have a clear account on all the political differences among the Russian revolutionaries. Besides that, the core of his ideas on the socialist revolution was a general assumption that it would be a continuous movement, “without violent crashes.”

By its intimate and irresistible cultural force, the revolution of the Bolsheviks “was based more on ideologies than on facts.” For this reason the revolution couldn’t be read “in the letter [of the text] of Marx.” In Russia, Gramsci continued, Capital was “the book of the bourgeoisie rather than of the workers.” Gramsci was referring to the Preface of 1867 in which Marx claimed that nations with greater capitalist development showed the way to the underdeveloped, the “natural stages” of progress that could not be skipped.

On the basis of this text the Mensheviks had formulated a reading of social development in Russia which affirmed the need for the formation of a bourgeoisie and the constitution of a fully developed industrial society before socialism became a possibility. But the revolutionaries under the leadership of Lenin, according to Gramsci, “are not Marxists” in a strict way, that is, while they didn’t refuse “the immanent thought” of Marx, they would “forswear some statements of Capital” and refused to take it as “an external little doctrine full of dogmatic and indisputable statements.”

According to Gramsci, Marx’s prediction of the development of capitalism exposed in Capital would be correct for situations of normal development in which the formation of a “popular collective will” occurs through “a long series of class experiences.” The war, however, had accelerated this temporality in an unpredictable way, and within three years the Russian workers had experienced these influences intensely: “The high cost of living, hunger, death by hunger could reach all, decimate tens of millions at a time. [Against it] the wills were put in unison, first mechanically and then spiritually after the first revolution.”

This collective popular will was fostered by socialist propaganda. It had allowed the Russian workers, in an exceptional situation, to live the full history of the proletariat in one instant. The workers recognized the efforts of their ancestors to emancipate themselves from the “bonds of servility” and rapidly developed a “new consciousness,” becoming “a present witness of a future world.” Moreover, coming to this consciousness at a time when internationally capitalism was fully developed in countries such as England, the Russian proletariat could rapidly attain its economic maturity, a necessary condition for collectivism.

Despite having, in 1917, a still-poor knowledge of the Bolshevik’s ideas, the young editor of Il Grido del Popolo had naturally gravitated close to Trotsky’s permanent revolution formula. Gramsci saw in Lenin and the Bolsheviks the embodiment of a program of renewal of the uninterrupted revolution. A revolution that he wanted to become real also in Italy.

Twenty years later, Gramsci died as a prisoner of Italian fascism. Such a retrospective glance might lead us to believe that this tragic destiny would lead Gramsci to question the great hopes he saw in October. Or even that his Prison Notebooks would be an exercise of finding “new ways,” more moderate or negotiated forms of struggle against capitalism.

There was no such surrender. In his prison writings, Gramsci offered a theory of politics in which force and consensus are not separated and in which the state is conceived as the historical result of processes of interweaving forces, processes which rarely produce advantageous conditions for subaltern groups. He wrote about the need to arm the struggle in all spheres of life, and also about the risks of hegemonic accommodation and political “transformism.” He gave special thought to the role — almost always deleterious — of intellectuals in popular life, and on the importance of advancing Marxism as integral worldview — the philosophy of práxis.

Nothing in the years of imprisonment indicates, therefore, that Gramsci would have abandoned the Russian Revolution as a programmatic and historical reference for the emancipation of the working class. The Russian Revolution remained alive in Gramsci’s mind and heart until his death in April 1937.