Revolutionary Trotskyism vs. Gramscism: The Programmatic Clash
Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army, ca. 1920
By Jan Norden
The following is a translation of the full text of the paper on this subject, an abbreviated version of which was presented at the online event, “Trotsky in Permanence” (encuentrotrotsky.org), on 6 August 2021.
It is well-known that for some decades now the thought of Antonio Gramsci has enjoyed all-sided popularity on the international left. Groups and supporters of Stalinist, Eurocommunist, social-democratic, populist, even bourgeois liberal currents, including some who identify with Trotskyism, lay claim to the legacy of the Italian Communist leader. In academia, Gramscian concepts have become common in various disciplines (education, history, sociology, political economy), even in milieus that are hardly radical. In Italy, Gramsci has been adopted as a national icon, one of the fathers of the republic, so much so that even Silvio Berlusconi boasts of the legacy of the Sardinian Marxist who died in Mussolini's prisons.
On the other hand, Gramsci has become the favorite target of the ultra-right, and even of presidents Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States. A couple of years ago the Brazilian foreign minister gave a talk at the Heritage Society in Washington, a conservative right-wing think tank, in which he lambasted the danger of “cultural Marxism” in general, and “Antonio Gramsci and drug trafficking” in particular. On his last day in office, Trump’s White House issued a document dubbed The 1776 Report (named after the year U.S. independence was declared), to orient a cultural war he is trying to unleash in the schools, which blames Gramsci for being the author of identity politics.
So, I want to stress here that those who have embraced Gramsci, and also those who demonize him, do so for their own reasons. Let’s leave Trump and Bolsonaro aside and focus on the left-wing supporters of the 1920s Italian theorist and Communist leader.
The first to rediscover Gramsci were the heads of the Italian Communist Party after the revelations about Stalin's crimes made by Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956. By extolling Gramsci, they could claim a legacy other than that of being unconditional henchmen of the Great Organizer of Defeats, the executioner of the Moscow Trials. In the mid-1960s, Gramsci’s writings attracted interest among the New Left in Europe and the United States as a “heterodox” Marxism. After the “French May” of 1968, and more specifically the fact that all the student agitation and factory takeovers by workers did not result in a revolution, there was a new surge of interest in Gramsci among the disappointed soixante-huitards (68ers).
Why? They, through characters like the academic Louis Althusser, then a Maoist, were particularly interested in Gramsci's concept of hegemony, and in his proposition that a “subaltern” group – in the esoteric language so popular among graduate students – that is, in Marxist terms, a sector of the exploited or oppressed, manages to “rise to the stage of political-intellectual hegemony in civil society, and of domination in the state.” Gramsci wrote that unlike tsarist Russia, which according to him dominated its subjects almost exclusively by means of state power, Western societies have a fabric of institutions through which the ruling class maintains its dominance by means going beyond police power. In such societies, he argued, before considering the seizure of political power, one would first have to struggle to conquer cultural leadership.
This was very attractive to former leftist students turned academics, who could dedicate themselves to educating a new generation of youth in the direction of breaking the “political-intellectual” hegemony of the bourgeoisie as a stage preliminary to or preparing the revolution. And with that aim, they believed they could take advantage of state initiatives that sought to provide a safety valve for the radicalism of May ’68 by founding a whole series of new universities around Paris – Paris VIII (Saint-Denis), Paris X (Nanterre), etc. And not only in France. In Mexico, after each student revolt a new university is founded in which former student leaders are hired – after ’68, the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) was founded; after the ten-month strike of 1999-2000, the Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM) was founded.
There are two major problems here. In the first place, the following question arises: in this curious “alliance,” shall we say, between the Gramscian intellectuals and the state that hired them, who is the rider and who is the horse? In reality, it was the bourgeoisie which profited from the “long march through the institutions” undertaken by the former 68ers, in the phrase of the German New Leftist Rudi Dutschke, who was influenced by Gramsci. And secondly, Gramsci’s thesis, and the “praxis” of the post-68 Gramscians, contradicts from top to bottom Marx’s thesis, in The German Ideology (1847), according to which, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production….”
In reality, the political-intellectual hegemony of the capitalist ruling class can only be wrested from it in a potentially revolutionary crisis. The conception that there could be a more or less extended preparatory period in which proletarian revolutionaries can gain predominance in society before the seizure of power is profoundly mistaken. In that sense, this differs from the situation of the vanguard of the bourgeoisie that conquered spaces in feudal or semi-feudal societies, such as the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. Unable to conquer that hegemony, the academic pseudo-leftists are playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie. The ideological preparation of the coming socialist revolution is mainly the task of the vanguard communist party, through its insertion in the class struggle, in its efforts to form cadres, in dialectical relation with the economic, political and social evolution of capitalist society.
In synthesis, the precept of Gramsci and his supporters of fighting with the aim of conquering the political-intellectual hegemony of society before the revolution is anti-Marxist and doomed to failure. Those who are guided by this scheme serve the bourgeoisie by diverting the struggle towards reformist objectives.
This brings me to the latter-day Gramscians of political tendencies that consider themselves Trotskyist. Here I am referring more than anything to the current called the Trotskyist Fraction. At first glance – and second and third – it is astonishing that groups claiming to represent the politics of Leon Trotsky try to appropriate Gramsci, or to join the contents of these very different traditions, or at least to treat them as complementary. At the programmatic level there are deep contradictions between revolutionary Trotskyism and the body of Gramscian conceptions. It is evident that one cannot speak of a Gramscian doctrine, due to the very nature of his work, which is particularly noticeable in the Prison Notebooks, written under repressive conditions that forced linguistic detours, preserved in fragmentary form, with contradictory passages. Thus in some places (the majority) Gramsci distinguishes civil society from the state, while in other essays he refers to civil society as an integral part of the state. Whatever.
This has given rise to multiple humanist, Stalinist-reformist, Eurocommunist, social-democratic, liberal, populist and now Trotskyoid interpretations of Antonio Gramsci’s ideas. Although one cannot speak of a Gramscian doctrine per se, there are a series of his concepts that have been adopted by various left-wing groups, such as the struggle for hegemony, which we have already mentioned; the struggle to cohere a “new historical bloc,” to give priority to a “war of positions” in the West rather than the “war of movement or frontal attack” of the Bolsheviks. All these conceptions contradict the policy of the Bolshevik-Leninists – i.e., the Trotskyists, during the 1930s – and are also contrary to the policy of the early Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky. As a whole, they represent a rightist deviation from Leninism, more or less consistent with the policy of Bukharin's Right Opposition, and in clear opposition to the policy of the Left Opposition.
Let me make a categorical statement: Antonio Gramsci would never have considered himself a Trotskyist, or even that his theoretical-philosophical approaches were compatible with Trotskyism. More than that, each of these conceptions was devised and formulated explicitly against Trotsky. Thus, for example, in his Notebooks, he posits that “Bronstein's famous theory about the permanent character of the movement” could be posited as “the political reflection ... of the general economic-cultural-social conditions of a country in which the structures of national life are embryonic and loose.” He disparagingly calls Bronstein (i.e., Trotsky) a “cosmopolitan,” neither truly but only “superficially” Russian or European. He remarks contemptuously of Trotsky that “his theory as such was good neither 15 years earlier nor 15 years later,” and that regarding the character of the October Revolution of 1917, Trotsky only “guessed more or less correctly.” He goes on to say that Trotsky could be seen as “the political theoretician of the frontal attack in a period in which such attack could only lead to defeat.”
The Trotskyoid-Gramscians explain away such polemical barrages as a result of confusion: how could Gramsci praise the united front policy, identifying it with Lenin and contrasting it with Trotsky, when this was the policy of both leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution against the policy of a generalized revolutionary offensive advocated by the so-called “left communists” at the Third Congress of the Third International? But Gramsci knew perfectly well that Trotsky favored the united front policy, since Gramsci participated in that congress. He also knew that Trotsky had written the fundamental document codifying this policy, “On the United Front.” This was not a confusion but a distortion, consistent with Gramsci’s categorical rejection of the permanent revolution.
Another example of attempts to falsely bring Gramsci closer to Trotsky has to do with the famous letter that the former wrote to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in October 1926, weeks before his arrest. In it, speaking on behalf of the Political Bureau of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci denounces the Opposition because the bourgeois press claims that “at present, according to the very statements of the most well-known leaders of the opposition bloc of the Communist Party of the USSR, the state of the soviets, is now definitely being transformed into a pure capitalist state.” Likewise, Gramsci declares that “we consider the political line of the majority of the C.C. of the Communist Party of the USSR to be fundamentally correct,” and adds:
“the position of the opposition assails the whole political line of the C.C., going to the very heart of the Leninist doctrine and of the political activity of our Party of the [Soviet] Union. What is at issue is the principle and practice of the hegemony of the proletariat, it is the fundamental relations of alliance between workers and peasants that are put in question and in danger, that is to say, the pillars of the workers state and of the Revolution.”
To pretend that this constitutes a veiled or furtive support to the Opposition is only to delude oneself. There is a book by an American scholar, Emanuele Saccarelli, titled Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism (2008), that argues that “Gramsci’s complaints against Trotsky” were “used as a sort of convenient shorthand for the ultraleftism imposed by Stalin in the third period.” Gramsci was a great scholar of Machiavelli, and it may be that in part he used the figure of the leader of the Opposition leader as a target for a coded critique of Stalin (though he had no idea whether his notes would ever be published). But Gramsci’s broad-ranging criticism and categorical rejection of Trotsky’s policy are undoubtedly genuine and, above all, are consistent with the rest of his policy, which was rightist.
So, the question arises: if it is not out of confusion, ignorance, misunderstanding or a Machiavellian ploy, why is it that the pseudo-Trotskyists postulate the compatibility of Gramsci with Trotsky’s politics? Let us take the Trotskyist Fraction (FT, from its initials in Spanish), which let it be said in passing has written tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of words in its endeavor to combine Gramscism with Trotskyism. In a 2015 article in the FT journal, Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello admit the glaring contradictions between Gramsci’s and Trotsky’s approaches on a number of issues, calling them a “gap in the Italian revolutionary’s thought,” which they see as “the most important source of ambiguities in his strategic reflections” on the united front, the “war of position,” etc. But, if there are “gaps” and “ambiguities” on such important questions, why, then, do they lay claim to Gramsci?
It is because the champion of the struggle for “hegemony” under capitalism provides them with a theoretical justification for their electoralist and “democratist” politics in general. The same spokesmen elaborated the connection in more detail in a 2016 article, “Gramsci, Trotsky and Capitalist Democracy,” which lays out the guiding line of the FT's politics. There they write that “a key point in Gramsci’s struggle against leftist tendencies in Italian communism was the development of the radical-democratic program” and that this “had many similarities” with Trotsky’s approach in Spain in 1931. They summarize the politics of the great revolutionary thus, “Trotsky: Radical Democracy, United Front, Soviets” and even claim that in the view of the founder of the Red Army, “revolutionaries are ready to raise a transitional program which includes the defense of bourgeois democracy against the attacks of the bourgeoisie in pursuit of the United Front.”
False. This is a complete misrepresentation of the politics of Trotsky, who never presented a “program of radical democracy” nor called to “defend bourgeois democracy.” Quite to the contrary, in his article, “The Tragedy of Spain” (January 1939), Trotsky states flatly that “The slogan of ‘defense of democracy’ has once again revealed its reactionary essence, and at the same time, its hollowness.” (Incidentally, for those who want to inquire further into this, they will look in vain for that article in the compilations of the CEIP [the Centro de Estudios, Investigaciones y Publicaciones León Trotsky, associated with the Trotskyist Fraction], but it will be found in the edition of Trotsky's writings on Spain published by Fontanella.)
“Defense of democracy” was the treacherous slogan of the Stalinists and Socialists in Spain, not of Trotsky. What Trotsky did stand for in the imperialist – that is to say, advanced capitalist – countries, was to raise at particular moments some democratic slogans to which the bourgeoisie and the reformists were opposed. But this would be a subordinate and circumstantial element, far from a program. And, of course, in the Spanish Civil War Trotsky stood for the military defeat of Franco’s reactionary forces, while emphasizing that this required and was part of the fight for proletarian revolution against the Popular Front of class collaboration.
Then in the same text, Albamonte and Maiello develop the main aspects of the Trotskyist Fraction’s politics: the priority given to electoral participation, the slogan of constituent assemblies that they raise just about everywhere, and the calls for “radical democracy” that accompany it. We heard it in this conference, too, in the presentation on August 2 by Brazilian FT leader Diana Assunção, when she counterposed, if I understood it correctly, “radical democracy” as a response to [Chilean president] Sebastián Piñera’s Constituent Convention which was cooked up with the Socialist Party. But it is precisely in Chile where one can with see so clearly how the slogan of a constituent assembly served the politicians defending bourgeois rule as a “democratic” way out of the crisis in which they found themselves in October-November 2019.1 The demands of the masses who rose up at that time could not be resolved under capitalism. Should the Trotskyists’ alternative to the Constituent Convention be a “free and sovereign constituent assembly”? Not at all, we must fight for a workers government, based on workers councils. In Brazil, the alternative to the Bonapartist regime of Bolsonaro, Murão and the generals is neither a broad front, nor popular front, nor the PT [Workers Party], nor a bourgeois constituent assembly, no matter how radical it pretends to be, but the struggle for socialist revolution.
A side note: in Argentina, there are other sectors that criticize the fascination with Gramsci, such as the Partido Obrero and its periphery. But in reality, the practical differences are not all that great, and despite sometimes stormy disputes, they are together in the Left and Workers Front (FIT), in its latest version 2.0 of “Unity” (the FIT-U) or in previous versions of such propaganda blocs, as will be the case in future blocs as well. We have written about this in a 2018 article,2 and also about the slogans calling for constituent assemblies everywhere, in 2007.3
This brings me to the second part of my presentation, namely, that the counterposition between Trotskyism and Gramscism is not limited to the theoretical field. In the first place, Gramsci not only bowed to the “general line” of the Stalinist leadership of the Comintern, but it was he who led the purge of the left in the Italian Communist Party, in the name of “Bolshevization” which turned out to be a short step towards the complete Stalinization of the Third International. For that, he used the same bureaucratic methods that his peers employed in other Communist parties around the world, as demonstrated by the text of the Italian Trotskyist scholar, Paolo Casciola, titled “Gramsci Was Also Wrong….” Of course, the PCI left was then under the leadership of Amadeo Bordiga who, as is well known, rejected democratic slogans in general, opposed the united front policy of the Comintern advocated by Lenin and Trotsky, and ruled out participation in bourgeois elections and bourgeois parliaments. Gramsci’s politics went to the other extreme, to the right.
I would also like to point out that, although there was obviously an evolution from the views of the young Gramsci to his reflections in middle age, under terrible prison conditions, many of the themes found in his Notebooks are present in earlier years. In particular, when he speaks of an “organic crisis,” in which “the ruling class has lost consensus,” depending solely on “pure coercive force” because the masses “have turned away from traditional ideologies,” he describes it thus: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” And he adds: “in this interregnum the most varied morbid phenomena take place.” Evidently, he is speaking, among other things, of the irruption of fascism.
In fact, Gramsci used very similar expressions in 1920, in the months leading up to the famous occupation of factories in Turin in September of that year. Not only he, but the entire “maximalist” leadership of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI)4 declared itself convinced that the situation was revolutionary, but that the masses were not yet mature enough to launch a struggle for power. A meeting of the PSI National Council was held in Milan in April 1920, at the same time as a general strike was taking pace in Turin, the largest in the entire history of Italy up to that time. Serrati, the main centrist leader, opened the debate, insisting that “we are in a different situation from that of the Russian comrades, who have found themselves in an environment where the state had disintegrated and with it all the bourgeois institutions. We are confronted with the bourgeois state which is still standing with all its forces. Therefore, we need different tactics” (Avanti! 20 April 1920). So the centrist leader, who was the main obstacle to the proclamation of a communist party in Italy, presents the same argument made by Gramsci in his Notebooks to justify the superiority in the West of the “war of position.”
Serrati went on to insist that “the situation is in fact revolutionary,” because “the whole bourgeois world is crumbling, creating for us the possibility of taking the leadership into our own hands.” He ended by saying that this had been the case since the end of the world war, but in spite of the fact that “the proletariat had been nurturing ardent hopes, we saw that we still did not have what’s needed to take power.” And so he refused to extend the general strike to the rest of the country, leading to its defeat. Responding to that betrayal, Gramsci later wrote (L'Ordine Nuovo, 8 May 1920) blaming the “general state of Italian society,” stating that “it is certain that the working class of Turin was defeated because in Italy, the necessary and sufficient conditions for an organic and disciplined movement of the whole of the working class and peasantry do not exist, they have not sufficiently matured.” He resorted to the same arguments as Serrati, who used such justifications to stab the Turin workers in the back.
Then the same thing happened with the factory occupations in September of the same year. Everyone, including spokesmen of the bourgeoisie, expected that the metal workers, with Gramsci’s Ordine Nuovo group at their head, would use the opportunity to strike the final blow. But no: although they had occupied the factories, they did not take to the streets to fight against the very weak police and military forces, they did not call on the railroad workers to go on general strike throughout Italy. In fact, they did not even stop production in those factories. Why not? Because in the Gramscian conception of factory councils, the point was to show the bosses, and the workers themselves, that they were capable of directing production. For Lenin and Trotsky and the young Communist International, in contrast, workers control was the prelude to insurrection. But neither in 1920 nor in his Notebooks did Gramsci concern himself with the preparation of workers insurrection. Instead, he fought to conquer hegemony in society.
The judgment of the leaders of the Communist International on the events of September 1920 and the preceding months in Italy was expressed by Lenin, at the Third Congress of the Third International, held the following year, when he said: “Was there a single Communist who showed his mettle when the workers took over the factories in Italy? No. At that time, there was still no communism in Italy.” And that included Gramsci. PCI historian Paolo Spriano summed up Ordine Nuovo’s policy as reflecting that of the entire left wing of the PSI, “which fits perfectly into classical maximalism, with its ... scarlet language, combined with eternal waiting for the better moment, and its continuous postponement.” The result in September 1920 was another defeat, and this time of a disastrous character, because it was the fascists who mobilized, seizing the streets and launching a white terror against the peasants who had risen up, and were abandoned by the Gramscians of Turin.
Gramsci's policy has been summarized by Italian historians as “molecular disruption” of the bourgeois administration and “capillary construction” of a supposed dual power. With leftist arguments, in fact he concurred with the paralysis of the other centrist sectors of the Italian Socialist Party. This policy was responsible for the defeat of the workers struggles of the Italian Biennio Rosso (Red Two Years) of 1919-1920 and the consequent isolation of the young Soviet republic, with its disastrous aftermath. In Italy, the triumph of fascism two years later with the March on Rome of Mussolini and his squadristi was the punishment of history for the proletariat not having seized power at the right moment. And the road that led to the disaster of 1922 was the result of the betrayal of September 1920, which in turn was the faithful reflection of the policy of eternal waiting of Gramsci and the other leaders of the socialist left in Italy.
At that time of that historic disaster, Gramsci again expressed his policy of passivity. In a newly rediscovered article he wrote for Pravda, dated 7 November 1922, that is, on the fifth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, speaking of the fascist march that occurred a few days earlier, Gramsci wrote that “The seizure of power by the fascists reduces the activity of the Italian Communist Party to that of a purely conspiratorial movement.” But he states that “the contradictions of Italian society ... have clearly manifested themselves in the last two years” and “Thus, despite the gravity of the present situation, the future prospects for the proletariat and its party are not particularly negative.” Well, this was not the case, unfortunately.
The struggle for revolutionary Trotskyism demands a severe historical judgment on the counterposed Gramscian heritage. ■
- 1. In October-November 2019, a social explosion of massive protests engulfed Chile. Starting out as opposition to fare hikes on urban transport, as the upheaval radicalized, its demands broadened into a protest against the rising cost of living, low wages, miserable pensions, the high price of medicines and health care, neoliberal economic policies and social inequality in general, as well as against the Chilean constitution of 1980 (issued during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet). By mid-November the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera managed to defuse the protests with the announcement of an agreement cooked up with the “moderate” opposition parties to hold a plebiscite on the constitution, ultimately leading to the Constituent Convention now (2021) underway.
- 2. See “The Left Front in Argentina: A Reformist Electoral Cartel,” The Internationalist No. 53, September-October 2018.
- 3. See “Trotskyism vs. ‘Constituent Assembly’ Mania” (October 2007), The Internationalist No. 27, May-June 2008.
- 4. In 1912, the former reformist leaders of the PSI were replaced by a heterogeneous centrist “Maximalist” leadership, so-called because it emphasized the socialist Maximum Program. The Maximalists consolidated their hold in 1914 and during the war the PSI took a neutral line, in contrast to the German, French and other sections of the Second International that shamefully supported “their own” bourgeoisies in the war. However, this neutrality reflected in part the position of the Italian bourgeoisie, which initially sought to stay out of the war, and was counterposed to the policy of revolutionary defeatism of the Russian Bolsheviks under Lenin. By 1920, a left wing had formed inside the PSI sympathizing with the Bolshevik Revolution but hesitating to break with the centrist “Maximalists” led by Giacinto Menotti Serrati.