The REDSTAR2000 Papers

Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

A Brief Note on Gramsci and "Leaders" August 26, 2005 by RedStar2000

Antonio Gramsci was a rather famous Italian revolutionary who died in one of Mussolini's prisons. At RevLeft, someone recently quoted an extract from his writings on the subject of "leaders".


Naturally, I could not very well let that pass, now could I? *laughs*


quote (Gramsci):

Every State cannot avoid having a government, made up of a small number of men, who in their turn organize themselves around one who is endowed with greater ability and greater perspicacity.

Well, let's begin with that unusual word "perspicacity" -- it means in business dealings. Especially skillful in bargaining might be another way to put it.

Gramsci's "leader" is one who can, through negotiation, balance conflicting interests in such a way as to result in purposeful one direction or another.


So long as a State is necessary, so long as it is historically necessary to govern men, whichever the ruling class may be, the problem will arise of having leaders, of having a "leader".

Note the careful qualification here...there will be no Gramscian "leaders" in a communist (stateless) society.


The fact that socialists, even ones who call themselves Marxists and revolutionaries, say they want the dictatorship of the proletariat but not the dictatorship of leaders; say they do not want command to be individualized and personalized; in other words, say they want dictatorship, but not in the form in which it is historically possible - merely reveals a whole political stance, a whole "revolutionary" theoretical formation.
-- emphasis added.

Here Gramsci asserts that the dictatorship of the proletariat reduces itself, by necessity, to the dictatorship of an individual "leader" or a small group of "leaders".

Ok, I see two possibilities here.

1. The phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat" is historically best, the "leader" or "leaders" rule in the name of the proletariat.

2. Or...Gramsci is just flat out wrong.


In the question of proletarian dictatorship, the key problem is not the physical personification of the function of command. The key problem consists in the nature of the relations which the leaders or leader have with the party of the working class, in the relations which exist between this party and the working class. Are these purely hierarchical, of a military type, or are they of a historical and organic nature?

I admit I have never been a careful student of Gramsci's work -- but it's always struck me that there was a strong idealist slant to his thinking.

In real life, the leader-led relationship is fundamentally "hierarchical" and "of a military type"...however that may be costumed, perfumed, etc.

To speak of leaders and their followers as having an "organic relationship" is, I think, to be metaphysical. It implies that there is "something more" to the relationship than one guy commanding and all the rest obeying.

Whatever that "something" might be, it is clearly subjective and has no bearing on the objective material outcome...which remains one guy commanding and all the rest obeying.

Whether you obey because some thug is pointing a gun at you or you obey because you "love your Leader with all your heart"...the main thing is that you obey.


Are the leader and the party elements of the working class, are they a part of the working class, do they represent its deepest and most vital interests and aspirations, or are they an excrescence or simply a violent superimposition?

Here Gramsci is simply being a-historical.

He is evidently ignorant of the work of, for example, Rosa Luxembourg -- who pointed out back in 1911 (I believe) that a certain kind of party organization, even if it began in the former situation, would end up in the latter situation.

All Leninist parties claim that they are "a part of the working class" and "represent its deepest and most vital interests and aspirations".

That was a plausible claim in the 1920s...but was it and is it true?

In fact, it turned out, for the most part, not to be true at all.


Why did it become the party of the working class? Did this occur by chance?

Chance is actually a pretty good explanation for the rise to prominence of particular personalities in history.

For example, why did Lenin's party become the party of the Russian working class during the summer of 1917 and Roosevelt's party become the party of the American working class in 1932?

Do we give Lenin and Roosevelt (neither of whom were workers) the credit? Or were there deeper causes at work?


The problem also becomes that of the vitality of Marxism; of whether it is or is not the most certain and profound interpretation of nature and of history; of whether it can complement the politician's inspired intuition by an infallible method, an instrument of the greatest precision for exploring the future, foreseeing mass events, leading them and hence controlling them.
-- emphasis added.

Somehow, I think this sort of thing would set Marx spinning in his grave with hurricane-like velocity.

It's "Marxism" as fortune-telling.

Not to mention the "inspired intuition" (known to us mere mortals as the lucky guess) of the leader.


This selection process was a struggle of factions and small groups; it was also an individual struggle; it meant splits and fusions, arrest, exile, prison, assassination attempts; it meant resistance to discouragement, and to pride; it meant suffering hunger while having millions in gold available; it meant preserving the spirit of a simple worker on the throne of the Tsars; it meant not despairing even when all seemed lost, but starting again, patiently and tenaciously; it meant keeping a cool head and a smile when others lost their heads. The Russian Communist Party, with its leader Lenin, bound itself up so tightly with the entire development of its Russian proletariat, with the whole development therefore of the entire Russian nation, that it is not possible even to imagine one without the other: the proletariat as a ruling class without the Communist Party being the governing party; hence without the Central Committee of the party being the inspirer of government policy; and hence without Lenin being the leader of the State.

Since we know (from other evidence) that Gramsci was not a cynical opportunist looking for a job when he wrote this, we can only conclude that he sincerely meant every word of it.

Which makes its hagiographic character all the more depressing.

It is, in fact, almost fascist in would need only to substitute a few words to "achieve" the sort of literary panegyrics that were routinely written and published about Mussolini, Hitler,


The dictatorship of the proletariat is expansive, not repressive. A continuous movement takes place from the base upwards, a continuous replacement through all the capillaries of society, a continuous circulation of men.

Except at the top...where, curiously, the men remain the same until death achieves what the people cannot -- their final and permanent dismissal from office.


In Italy we have the fascist rιgime, we have Benito Mussolini as fascism's leader, we have an official ideology in which the "leader" is deified, declared to be infallible, prophesied as the organizer and inspirer of a reborn Holy Roman Empire. We see printed in the newspapers, every day, scores and hundreds of telegrams of homage from the vast local tribes to the "leader". We see the photographs: the hardened mask of a face which we have already seen at socialist meetings. We know that face: we know that rolling of the eyes in their sockets, eyes which in the past sought with their ferocious movements to bring shudders to the bourgeoisie, and today seek to do the same to the proletariat. We know that fist always clenched in a threat. We know the whole mechanism, the whole paraphernalia, and we understand that it may impress and tug at the heartstrings of bourgeois school-children. It is really impressive, even when seen close up, and has an awesome effect. But "leader"?

Well, why not? Why is Mussolini not just as "entitled" to mindless adoration as Lenin?

If your idea of politics reduces itself to flopping on your belly, what difference does it make who you worship?

Is the mindless worshiper of Lenin to be preferred to the mindless worshiper of Mussolini? On what grounds?

Neither is capable of rational thought on the object of their veneration -- though they may be quite perceptive on other matters. But one must view everything they have to say with deepest suspicion. Leader-worship is just as much a superstition as Catholicism -- and has the tendency to "leak" into everything else the worshiper might choose to "think" about.

Thus, you will not be surprised to find that I can't get very interested in Gramsci's ideas.
First posted at RevLeft on August 25, 2005

A Postscript...

quote (Gramsci):

The Bolshevik Revolution consists more of ideologies than of events. (And hence, at bottom, we do not really need to know more than we do.) This is the revolution against Karl Marx's Capital. In Russia, Marx's Capital was more the book of the bourgeoisie than of the proletariat. It stood as the critical demonstration of how events should follow a predetermined course: how in Russia a bourgeoisie had to develop, and a capitalist era had to open, with the setting-up of a Western-type civilization, before the proletariat could even think in terms of its own revolt, its own class demands, its own revolution. But events have overcome ideologies. Events have exploded the critical schema determining how the history of Russia would unfold according to the canons of historical materialism. The Bolsheviks reject Karl Marx, and their explicit actions and conquests bear witness that the canons of historical materialism are not so rigid as might have been and has been thought.

"The Revolution Against Capital" in Avanti, December 24, 1917

Credit where credit is due! Gramsci clearly perceived the anti-Marxist character of Leninism long before his contemporaries.

Unfortunately, he thought that was "a good thing".

Perhaps one can understand that. It is difficult to be "clear headed" in a period of "revolutionary enthusiasm"...where rhetoric is readily accepted as reality.

I imagine much the same sort of rhetoric is probably heard in Caracas today. They're "building socialism" in a social order that remains and must remain capitalist. Venezuela needs a new capitalist class in order to "break the chains" of U.S. imperialism...and that's what is really happening there. The "leftist rhetoric" is just for the purpose of arousing support for this project among the masses.

By now we know (or should know) that Marx was right and Lenin was wrong. Russia today is vigorously developing modern capitalism...exactly as Marx predicted that every country would.
First posted at RevLeft on November 18, 2005
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