In the Conjuncture: Trotsky, Gramsci and Machiavelli


A review of the new book “Hegemonía Y Lucha De Clases” (Hegemony and Class Struggle) by Argentine Marxist Juan Dal Maso

Cover of the book "Hegemonía y Lucha de Clases" by the Argentine Marxist Juan Dal Maso

At the end of 1976, Perry Anderson published his magisterial study “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” in Issue 100 of the New Left Review, which marked the journal’s fortieth year in print. Written as a critique of the reformism of the emerging Eurocommunist current, for which Gramsci, or rather the Gramsci constructed retroactively by its French and Italian adherents, served as both theoretical foundation and a guarantee of its lineal descent from the founding congresses of the Third International, Anderson’s analysis would come to determine how Gramsci was read, at least in the English-speaking world. “Antinomies,” written just after the peak of the revolutionary wave of 1968-1975, was, as is clear today, organized around antinomies or paradoxes whose effects were just as powerful as those Anderson claimed to have discovered in Gramsci. The “slippages” he identified in Gramsci were simultaneously his own: in particular, his renewed appreciation for both the juridical distinction between state and civil society and the notion of the popular sovereignty of the (European) parliamentary regime. His reading helped create a broad interest in Gramsci in the UK and the US, even as it produced a grid of interpretation that limited the practical and theoretical effects of The Prison Notebooks.

It should come as no surprise that the work that attempts most comprehensively to free Gramsci from this grid does not come from Europe or North America, but from Latin America. The work comes from Argentina, where one might argue that the most difficult challenges and indeed the greatest threats and dangers Gramsci faced, in both his political and personal life, and which are inscribed at different registers in The Prison Notebooks, appeared or reappeared 50 years later in person. The dictatorship installed in 1976 (preceded by several years by a reign of terror against the Left carried out by “non-state actors”) could not be characterized as fascist, but the questions of strategy (the war of position or war of maneuver, the united front or the proletarian frontal assault) were posed as urgently and with as much at stake as would have been the case against a fascist enemy. This is the legacy bequeathed by an earlier generation to the revolutionary left in Argentina today, a fund of political experiences and experiments, the living memory of which allows them to be examined closely for whatever knowledge might be gleaned from them.

This history, nowhere made explicit, although it glimmers intermittently at certain key points in the text, informs every page of Juan Dal Maso’s HEGEMONÍA Y LUCHA DE CLASES : Tres ensayos sobre Trotsky, Gramsci y el marxismo. The experience of struggle both lived and remembered has allowed Dal Maso to arrange a theoretical and political encounter between Trotsky and Gramsci that is not only welcome but necessary. It is welcome especially insofar as it is a comparison of Trotsky and Gramsci that is more than a casual notation of apparent points of convergence, difference and opposition (and I am speaking primarily of The Prison Notebooks, rather than of Gramsci’s writing prior to his arrest at the end of 1926, and of Trotsky’s work from the same period—with the exception of the early text, Results and Prospects). To put them in dialogue requires the work of translation at every level, as well as a careful examination of the differences that are “obvious to everyone” (e.g., Gramsci’s critique of permanent revolution) to determine the extent to which these differences are real and can be sustained by the texts themselves, simply to render them theoretically commensurable. This encounter is also necessary if we are to read both Trotsky and Gramsci in a new way that allows us to see what was previously invisible and illegible in their texts, even, or especially, those most frequently read. The objective alliance between them that emerges from Dal Maso’s study may be understood as part of a united front in in the realm of theory that is coextensive with the effort to build a united front in practice to confront the re-emergence of fascism (and neo-fascism) internationally.

What makes arranging an encounter or a dialogue between Trotsky and Gramsci so difficult? To begin, nearly everything Trotsky wrote after his expulsion from the CPSU in 1927 represents “the concrete analysis of the concrete situation” that he, just as much as Lenin, regarded as “the soul of Marxism.” The fact that these texts often produce theoretical effects (or side-effects), noticed or unnoticed by those who read them, does not change the fact that Trotsky seldom explicitly returns to the theoretical foundations of Marxism by constructing the sometimes elaborate genealogies we find in Gramsci: no long excurses on Hegel (or his heirs), no mention of Machiavelli, etc.

The fortunes of the term “hegemony,” that is, the ways it has been worked on, invoked, or exploited, however we evaluate them, show that Gramsci’s aim was to supply a concept, or perhaps a term that would indicate the absence of a concept, necessary to the continuing development of Marxism. Trotsky’s objective in every case was to provide as detailed an account as possible of a given conflict: the forces involved, their relative strength, their weapons, as well as the terrain on which combat took place, the limits it imposed and the possibilities it opened up. Even if, as Alex Callinicos intuited some forty years ago, and the contents of Althusser’s library confirm, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution presented a version of the notion of the overdetermined contradiction and showed the consequences of this notion for political practice, it did so without registering the existence of this notion.

While the difficulties of Trotsky’s exile are not comparable to those of Gramsci’s incarceration, physically or materially, both were experiences of punishment by banishment or exclusion. Trotsky reacted to being removed from the center of political deliberation and decision by increasing the number and magnitude of his political analyses: from China, Germany, Spain, France, the U.S. and Mexico (not to mention his unceasing effort to explain the counter-revolution in the U.S.S.R), establishing contacts with sympathetic intellectuals and militants around the world and dispensing advice on tactics and strategy. Gramsci, in contrast, faced with far more difficult circumstances, above all, having to avoid provoking the ire of his fascist jailers or of the dominant (Stalinist) tendency in the Communist movement, and with far less access to information and resources, sought to examine the theoretical and philosophical foundations and assumptions of many of the same tendencies whose practice was the object of Trotsky’s critique.

Perhaps the most directly theoretical of Trotsky’s work is that part which is least read. I am not referring to the thin collection of his philosophical notebooks, his work on literature and art or even his nearly forgotten collection, The Problems of Everyday Life (cultural revolution according to Trotsky), but to his military writings and in particular those pieces devoted to the debates around the question of a unified military doctrine in 1921-22. It is in his response to a group of commanders in the Red Army who have proposed a military doctrine based on the monist world view and the military science it makes possible, that Trotsky comes very close indeed to Gramsci (as read by Dal Maso against Anderson) and perhaps even more to Machiavelli (in The Prince as well as in The Art of War). Trotsky’s approach to strategy and tactics in political practice is the same as his approach to the strategy and tactics involved in war. In fact, the two are inseparable, and while politics must remain in command in the last instance, war communicates the truth that political practice often conceals from itself.

The “theory of the offensive” supported by the German KAPD and the Bordighist current in Italian Communism involved both military and political strategy. In its earliest form, tentatively endorsed by Lenin and Trotsky, it took its inspiration from the extension of the French revolution under Napoleon through military action to liberate the peoples of Europe from feudal subjection. When the Red army repelled a Polish invasion early in 1920, it then proceeded to invade Poland. Trotsky noted that “the Red Army was then advancing on Warsaw and it was possible to calculate that because of the revolutionary situation in Germany, Italy, and other countries the military impulse – without, of course, any independent significance of its own but as an auxiliary force . . . – might bring on the landslide of revolution then temporarily at a dead point.”[1] While the defeat of the Red Army outside of Warsaw convinced Lenin and Trotsky that the military version of the Offensive was an error (above all because it was not regarded by Polish workers as a means of liberation), a political version flourished throughout the Communist parties. It was often described as a kind of intoxication: there was no other way than forward, by taking the offensive without regard to the concrete relationship of forces, with the certainty that decisive action would rouse the now passive majority of the proletariat. The 1921 March Action in Germany demonstrated the folly of replacing strategic action with a moral-political imperative based on faith in the certainty of Revolution.

This folly, grounded in the defeat of the revolutionary wave that followed in the wake of World War I, was as pervasive in the Soviet Republic as elsewhere, nourished by an acute awareness of the importance of the extension of the revolution in Europe for the mere survival of the revolution in Soviet Russia. In 1919-1920 a group of Red Army commanders proposed the adoption of a “Unified Military Doctrine” at the center of which was a theory of the offensive and the principle of the maneuverability of the Red Army, the success of which in practice was guaranteed by Marxist science. More importantly, this doctrine was derived only in part from the objective conditions in which the war was fought; its essential foundation was the proletarian class character of the Red Army. To take the offensive from the start, to be the first to attack is always advantageous (a principle, as Trotsky pointed out, taken from the French military statutes of 1921). The doctrine allowed for the possibility of “positionalist” methods, but repeated that such methods could never be allowed to become “the basic form of struggle” and warned against becoming “carried away” with merely defensive methods.[2]

While Trotsky’s critique of this doctrine was based to a certain extent on examples from the recently concluded civil war, and the near impossibility of launching a full scale offensive given the material conditions in the Soviet Union, his primary object was the theoretical assumption on which it was based. It was, he argued, a “formalism,” that treated strategies and tactics like ordinal numbers in an ordered set.[3] The doctrine consisted of a list of abstractions, principles that applied to any situation irrespective of the terrain, the size and strength of the opposing force, its weaponry, mobility, supply lines, etc. These abstractions, moreover, drew from theological notions concerning the power of truth and righteousness; behind them lay messianic fantasies of the coming end whose arrival was certain and for which the total offensive was the only adequate form of witness. In words that are nearly identical to those of Machiavelli in The Prince, Trotsky rejects the entire notion of a military doctrine as an exercise in philosophy. One must learn to determine strategy and tactics on the basis of the specific circumstances and concrete conditions of a given situation that will determine what must be done to achieve a particular objective. As Machiavelli said, one must learn to act according to necessity.[4]

It is impossible not to see the applicability of Trotsky’s critique to the party of the Offensive in the period preceding the Third Congress of the Third International, held in June-July 1921. It was he who announced at the opening of the Congress that the situation throughout Europe, the balance of class forces and the opportunities for the Communists Parties to win the masses to the revolutionary struggle were no longer what they had been in 1919. Capitalism had stabilized and an economic recovery was on the way. New tactics were required: Lenin and Trotsky emphasized the united front with other working class forces as a way of going to the masses. In the face of this political necessity, however, the left wing of the Communist movement decried the “anti-putschist cretinism” of the majority, having declared that, “Previously we waited, but now we will seize the initiative and force the revolution”.[5] This was indeed what Trotsky had referred to as “maneuverist intoxication,” itself the effect of the elevation of the Offensive as a philosophical/moral imperative.[6]

As Dal Maso has decisively shown by examining a number of passages in The Prison Notebooks written at different times, Gramsci’s perspective, irrespective of his critique of the theory of permanent revolution as a variant of “maneuverism” and the theory of the offensive, is very close to Trotsky’s. If the situation or the relationship of forces determines strategy, as opposed to either a philosophy of the Offensive or a totalizing sense of the historical epoch as a relatively stable system (historicism), Gramsci’s emphasis on “positionalism” rests on nothing more than a characterization of the political conjuncture, and might well suggest an emphasis on the united front in the face of its rejection at the Sixth Congress of the Third International, held in 1928. Despite the immense growth of fascism, the Congress declared the need to reject alliances with social democratic parties (suddenly defined as “social-fascist”) so as not to be restrained from launching the revolutionary offensive made possible by a new period of economic and political crisis.

The idea of “forcing the revolution” was again on the agenda and would have far more catastrophic results than in 1921. While Anderson maintains that Gramsci conceived the war of position as “valid for a complete era and an entire zone of socialist struggle” with a “much wider resonance than that of the tactic of the United Front once advocated by the Comintern,” [7] Dal Maso shows that the actual text of The Prison Notebooks suggests a Gramsci far more attuned to shifts in the conjuncture and the need for a theory capable of registering these shifts, for whom strategies based on a characterization of “a complete era and an entire zone” could only lead to defeat. He cites Gramsci’s fascinating account of the Indian struggle against British imperialism:

When discussing the political struggle in India against the English, Gramsci speaks of three forms of war: war of position, war of movement and underground warfare. Gandhi’s passive resistance is a war of position, which at certain moments becomes a war of movement, and at others underground warfare. Boycotts are a form of war of position, strikes of war of movement, the secret preparation of weapons and combat troops belongs to underground warfare (Prison Notebooks, written between March-April, 1930). We see here that the difference between a war of position and a war of maneuver in the political area is initially described in terms of distinct “forms” of struggle and not different and opposed strategies which are, by definition, mutually exclusive.[8]

It follows then that Gramsci’s critique of the theory of the offensive led not to a simple rejection that replaced it with the correct theory, the war of position, but to:

the more subtle idea, which is the combination of war of maneuver within that primacy. That is to say, what is strategic itself is not the war of position but rather the way of articulating the forms of struggle to achieve victory, just as victory was won in Russia, but with other methods. This becomes important to the extent that Gramsci’s criticism of ‘frontal attack’ is more a criticism of attack without taking into consideration the balance of forces (a proposal he erroneously attributed to Trotsky) than of the idea of a form of struggle which rejects attack.[9]

To read Gramsci in the light of Trotsky’s theses on strategy and the necessity of thinking strategically is to rediscover the fundamental theoretical role Machiavelli plays in The Prison Notebooks. But which Machiavelli? For Anderson, Gramsci’s considerations of the oppositions of force and consent, violence and hegemony are “manifestly universal, in emulation of the manner of Machiavelli himself. An explicit set of oppositions is presented, valid for any historical epoch”.[10] We have just seen, however, the ways in which Gramsci, like Trotsky, rejects an even more restricted opposition of war of position and war of maneuver as an empty abstraction that can at most point us in the direction of the concrete complexity of the relationship of forces that characterizes a given conjuncture and in which positionalism and maneuverism remain necessarily and inescapably entangled. Significantly, in Anderson’s long essay the phrase “relation of forces” appears only once, in a description of military strategy on the Eastern Front in WWI, as if the concept itself has no place in Gramsci’s reflections on hegemony and class conflict.

As Dal Maso points out, to read The Prison Notebooks as a coherent system and then describe the points at which Gramsci appears to deviate from the postulates on which this system rests as “slippages,” is to select certain parts of the text as forming the norm from which others have slipped. Anderson’s discussion of hegemony and the role of both state and civil society in producing it, an opposition he initially rejects as too abstract, but must adopt because it is Gramsci’s, is exemplary in this regard. He maintains a critical distance from this opposition until his examination of what he calls Gramsci’s “second model” of hegemony. While the first model erred in attributing too great a role to the cultural manufacture of consent, the second model is not “a true correction” of the first.[11] In fact, its errors are more serious: here, Gramsci’s deviation lies in his notion that hegemony operates through a combination of force and consent and that both the state and civil society are sites where coercion is exercised and consent produced:

In Weber’s famous definition, the State is the institution which enjoys a monopoly of legitimate violence over a given territory. It alone possesses an army and a police—‘groups of men specialized in the use of repression’ (Engels). Thus it is not true that hegemony as coercion and consent is co-present in civil society and the State alike. The exercise of repression is juridically absent from civil society. The State reserves it as an exclusive domain. This brings us to a first fundamental axiom governing the nature of power in a developed structural asymmetry capitalist social formation. There is always a structural asymmetry in the distribution of the consensual and coercive functions of this power. Ideology is shared between civil society and the State: violence pertains to the State alone. In other words, the State enters twice over into any equation between the two. [12] 

Apart from the authority vested in Max Weber, what is noteworthy here is Anderson’s own slip: the wording of his assertion that “repression is juridically absent from civil society.” Unless we want to argue that legal violence is the only politically significant violence in Western parliamentary regimes during the twentieth century, Anderson’s phrase must be read as asserting that the repressive coercion and violence that takes place in civil society is juridically absent, that is, invisible to and in the law. Indeed, Dal Maso cites a number of passages from Gramsci in which he speaks of “vast private bureaucracies” that function as part of the state and even its police functions in ways invisible to the law.

The perspective of the Left in the Southern Cone of Latin America and its decades of experience with the bloodiest forms of repression, those that required the law to suspend itself so as not to interfere with the violence necessary to its continued existence, as was the case earlier in Italy, is a privileged one: it allows us to see what remains juridically absent but all too present in reality. With remarkable and admirable subtlety, Dal Maso ventures to remind us that “in addition to the state representatives which have at their disposal the legal coersive forces of the state, the leaders of formally “private” organizations, that is to say that organizations which aren’t owned by the state, have the power to exercise coersive actions, even the death penalty.” [13]

Perhaps, to paraphrase Althusser, not every text can be read from anywhere. Perhaps the Prison Notebooks asks more from its readers than their mere attention, as if it speaks a kind of double language identifiable and intelligible only to the veterans of absolute terror (and their heirs, political as well as familial), the violence indifferent to the law, from which there is no refuge but combat. Juan dal Maso is one such heir: the rigor and care that makes his study of Trotsky and Gramsci so fruitful is a mobilization of the revolutionary past, its defeats, as well as its victories, to arm us with the knowledge, and practical forms in which it is immanent, to confront the barbarism waiting just outside the gates.


i Trotsky, Leon. The First Five Years of the Communist International, 2 volumes, New 

York: Pathfinder Press, 1972, II:9.

ii Leon Trotsky. Military Writings. New York: Pathfinder, 1971, 86.

iii Trotsky, Military Writings, 87.

iv Niccolò Machiavelli, Il principe, XV.

v Karl Radek, ctd. In John Riddell, Editorial Introduction, To the Masses: Proceedings of the 

Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921.  Leiden: Brill, 2015, 18.

vi Trotsky, Military Writings, 83.

vii Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” New Left Review 100 

(Nov-Dec 1976), 61.

viii Juan Dal Maso, HEGEMONÍA Y LUCHA DE CLASES :Tres ensayos sobre Trotsky, Gramsci

y el marxismo. Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018, 224.

ix Dal Maso, HEGEMONÍA, 227.

x Anderson, “Antinomies,” 20-21.

xi Anderson, “Antinomies,” 32.

xii Anderson, “Antinomies,” 32.

xiii Dal Maso, HEGEMONÍA, 205.

About author

Warren Montag

Warren Montag

Warren is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is the editor of décalages and author of several books on the works of Adam Smith, Spinoza and Althusser.