Gramsci and Stalinism

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Sat Nov 25 10:25:13 MST 1995

UticaRose writes:
>Didn't Gramsci support the 21 conditions for admission to the Comintern ?
>Didnt Gramsci support the "democratic" centralism of the Bolshevik party
>which he saw close up in the mid-20s which was, at least and most
>the seed bed of stalinism ? Does it soften it to describe him as an early
>stalinist, a pre-mature stalinist or a proto-stalinist ? unlike luxemburg,
>gramsci did not wage a battle against the Bolsheviks on the issue of party
>democracy, unless i am missing something. i understand that Gramsci is one
>the last remaining sainted marxists but i find it hard to ignore his bona
>fides as a stalinist in good standing until his untimely demise.

Leo's response:
I don't find this a very helpful way of posing the issue because it jumbles
together, at least implicitly, two questions which really need to be
separated --
Question 1 (An Issue of Historical Scholarship and Accuracy):
What was Gramsci's politics in the 1920s as head of the PCI and while he
wrote the Prison Notebooks?
Question 2 (An Issue of Political Analysis):
Why were crimes of totalitarianism and mass murder (which we give the name
Stalinism) commited in the name of the Left (Marxism, Socialism), and what
must we do to ensure that these crimes are not repeated?

Question 1:
The argument presented here is:
Premise 1:
Gramsci saw himself as a Leninist, and was head of the PCI when it was, at
least in some general way, a Leninist party. (This is the import of his
acceptance of the principle of democratic centralism and of the conditions
for parties to enter the Comintern.)
Premise 2:
Leninism was the 'seed bed of Stalinism', and unlike Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci
did not criticize it.
Calling Gramsci a Stalinist is not that far off the mark.

There are a number of problems with this syllogism:

1. If one goes beyond surface generalities to actually investigate Gramsci's
formulations, and if one considers his actual role in the party vis-a-vis the
Bordiga faction (an issue raised, from a vantage point contrary to my own, by
one of our Italian correspondents), there is a serious issue even of how
orthodox a Leninist Gramsci was. It is a very uncomfortable and awkward fit,
I would suggest, to try to read Gramsci's conception of the party I described
in my previous posting, as a classically Leninist-vanguard party.

2. Without taking anything away from Rosa Luxemburg's critique of the
Leninist party and Russian Revolution, there are serious deficiencies in her
notions of spontaniety, as Gramsci's criticisms of it showed. I think that
Gramsci correctly understood Luxemburg's theory as apolitical in the sense
that it conceptually dissolved the party into the class, and was thus unable
to think through the nature and conditions of specifically political
struggle. (It is not accidental that Luxrmburg spent so much time on economic
theory, and saw the contradictions of the accumulation of capital as the
source of captialism's demise.) By contrast, the Leninist model, for all of
its many and serious faults (especially as a model of democratic
organization), was really the first attempt within the Marxist tradition to
conceptualize a political party as more than the dominant notion of a
parliamentary caucus and organizer of government. GIven the alternatives in
the early 1920s, Gramsci's choice is not all that hard to understand.

3. But the most fundamental error here is really requiring that Gramsci have
had all the benefits of our hindsight. The imagery of the seeds is revealing:
he is somehow supposed to be able to envision the form of the fully grown
tree when it is a seed or a young sapling. This is just poor history.

Question 2:
It is a different issue what we may conclude, at the end of the century,
concerning the nature of Stalinism and what is required to ensure that it
does not reappear on the historical stage, either as its own character or in
a new role. There is in the archives of this list a debate that occured
before the rose from northern New York graced our list in which we debated,
in very heated terms, this question. My formulation was that there were
deficiencies in political theory, traceable not only to Lenin but even
further back to Marx and Engels, that set the stage for Stalinism. This
should not be seen as a question of historical responsibility, since we all
live within limited horizons and our actions are constantly producing
unintended effects, Marx no less than anyone else; moreover, Marx's
intentions were clearly for a radical -- even utopian -- democratic order.
But if we engage in the ruthless critique of all that exists, as Marx himself
would have demanded, we will have to investigate his theoretical corpus to
see how its misformulations, and especially its silences and its gaps about
politics, set the stage for what was to follow. All that Lenin really did was
fill some of those gaps and silences with a less than ideal and less than
democratic model, which Stalin then took to its murderous, but nonetheless
logical, extreme. Luxemburg, by contrast, held fast to Marx's democratic
ideals, but refused to engage the gaps and silences concerning politics
within the system. Gramsci's work fills much of the same gap as Lenin, but in
a much more fruitful and democratic way; it, too, should be interrogated, as
it is by no means without flaw, but simply a much more useful starting point
for our work.

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