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Reconnecting Gramsci to the Traditions of Revolutionary Marxism: A Review of “Hegemonía y Lucha de Clases”

Juan Dal Maso’s “Hegemonía y lucha de clases. Tres ensayos sobre Trotsky, Gramsci y el marxismo” represents an ambitious attempt to rethink the relation of Gramsci to the traditions of revolutionary Marxism, by means of a critique of those positions that emphasised the possibility of a reformist reading of Gramsci and of an attempt to suggest that Gramsci and Trotsky faced the same open challenges of redefining revolutionary strategy.

Panagiotis Sotiris

April 7, 2021
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Originally published in Historical Materialism.

Opposing Gramsci to the traditions of revolutionary Marxism, and attempting to present his work as a kind of anti-Leninism, has been a commonplace in Marxist discussions ever since the late 1960s and Norberto Bobbio’s attempt to oppose Gramsci to some of the tenets of a classical Marxist theory of the state.1Bobbio 1979 This was also a very strong element of the way Gramsci was perceived as offering a justification for reformist politics in the 1970s, exemplified in the use of Gramsci as a reference point within the debates on Eurocommunism and in particular in the debates within the Italian Communist Party.2The exception was Nicos Poulantzas, who in State, Power, Socialism accused Gramsci of remaining basically within the contours of a very classical Leninist conception of dual power (Poulantzas 2000). The possibility of finding some connection between some of the tensions of Gramsci’s thinking and later variations of communist reformism was the central point of Perry Anderson’s well-known New Left Review article on the antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, recently reissued.3Anderson 2017 Louis Althusser was also in the late 1970s rather critical of the notion of hegemony, insisting that it could lead to a reformist conception of the state.4See in particular his manuscript ‘Marx in his Limits’, published after his death (in Althusser 2006) and his manuscript Que faire? (Althusser 2018). In writers more sympathetic to the neo-anarchist currents emerging in contemporary social movements, such as Richard Day, we can find a criticism of the Gramscian conceptualisation of hegemony as representative of the broader problems of any potential Marxist conception of politics.5Day 2005.

On the other hand, we have had a series of readings of Gramsci, which, despite their different scope or political references, have all attempted to stress both Gramsci’s originality and even uniqueness but also his constant dialogue with the various traditions of revolutionary Marxism.6These include the very rich Latin American Gramscian tradition, from José Arico, Juan Carlos Portantiero (see Portantiero 1981) and Carlos Nelson Coutinho to a younger generation, part of which is Dal Maso, to seminal books like Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s Gramsci and the State (Buci-Glucksmann 1980) or Peter D. Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment (Thomas 2009). See also Rosengarten 2014. All this attests to the extent to which Gramsci’s work remains a contested terrain of opposing readings.7For the many readings of Gramsci in Italy, see Liguori 2012.

In this sense, Juan Dal Maso’s Hegemonía y lucha de clases is a more than welcome return to examining the relation between Gramsci and the traditions of revolutionary Marxism, and an important reminder of the pertinence of Gramsci to contemporary strategic debates of the Left. The book is comprised of three articles by Dal Maso, one on the uses of the notion of hegemony in the writings of Trotsky, the second on the references to Trotsky in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and the third is a critical revisiting of Perry Anderson’s text on the antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.

Trotsky on Hegemony

The first essay is an important addition to the literature on Trotsky and the notion of hegemony. As is well-known, the very notion of hegemony emerged in the debates of the Russian Social-democracy and represented an attempt to think the leadership of the proletariat over the peasantry and other strata in the struggle against tsarist oppression. Later this notion reappeared in the debates within the Bolshevik Party in the NEP period.8For this particular debate, see Corney (ed.) 2015. It is from this period (and the critical references that Gramsci makes in regard to Trotsky in the Prison Notebooks) that the accusation that Trotsky did not have a strategy for hegemony comes. Here is how Bukharin formulated this accusation in that debate:

Thus, in spite of comrade Trotsky, Comrade Lenin considered that Trotsky’s theory did underestimate the role of the peasantry. And however much comrade Trotsky would like to avoid acknowledging this fundamental and cardinal error, he cannot. One cannot play at hide and seek. One must clearly, precisely and definitely say who is right. For it is perfectly clear that before us are two different theories: according to one theory, the peasantry is an ally, according to the other, it is an inevitable foe; according to one theory, we can conduct a successful fight for hegemony over the peasantry, according to the other theory, this must fail; according to one theory, a sharp conflict with the peasantry is inevitable, according to the other, this conflict may be avoided if our policy is cleverly conducted, etc.

Is it not clear that this ‘permanent’ question of a ‘permanent’ theory is the ‘permanent’ contradiction between Trotskyism and Leninism?9Bukharin in Corney (ed.) 2015, p. 536.

Dal Maso takes up the task of answering this criticism. He stresses how hegemony has a long history in the debates of the Russian Social-democracy and how Trotsky was an important contributor to those debates, making complex use of the notion of hegemony to refer to international relations and interstate hierarchies but also to the questions of the peasant–worker alliance and the challenge of the leadership of the proletariat in this alliance. Dal Maso highlights the fact that Trotsky had a very interesting approach to the question of hegemony in regard to the relations between states on the terrain of modern imperialism. Referring to Trotsky’s description of American hegemony in terms not just of politico-military force but also technical and financial superiority, he highlights the dialectical relation of economics and politics on the international plane.

Dal Maso offers a very detailed and informed reading of the debates surrounding the 1905 Revolution and the question of proletarian hegemony. He stresses the importance of Trotsky’s observations apropos of the soviets, as institutions of struggle:

In Trotsky’s perspective, the soviet was constituted as an organ of revolutionary power which exercised hegemony in the city and guaranteed, in its turn, the hegemony of the proletariat in the revolution (p. 48).

Dal Maso returns to the notion of permanent revolution as it evolved in Trotsky’s thinking in the wake of the experience of the Russian Revolution but also in light of later developments, the debates inside the Bolshevik party and events such as the Chinese Revolution of 1925–7. He insists that the logic of permanent revolution is indeed a logic of hegemony.

In synthesis, maintaining the close connection between hegemony, class struggle, tasks of the democratic-bourgeois revolution and of the proletarian revolution, hegemony was an instance in the dynamics of permanent revolution, which, in its turn, was the only one that allowed hegemony not to stop, advancing towards the dictatorship of the proletariat supported in the peasant movement (p. 59).

Dal Maso stresses the importance of Trotsky’s writings on the united front, insisting at the same time that the question of socialist revolution poses the question of hegemony and is therefore not a refusal of hegemony, and stressing the significance of the opposition between united front and popular front upon which Trotsky insisted. Of particular importance is Dal Maso’s return to Trotsky’s conceptualisation of the notion of the duality of power and its relation to the question of hegemony. In regard to this point, Dal Maso also returns to the conceptualisations of dual power and the duality of power as part of any transition process, in the works of Carlos Nelson Coutinho, René Zavaleta Mercado, and in Daniel Bensaïd’s highly original contributions on this subject of the late 1970s, with Dal Maso critical of Zavaleta Mercado’s position concerning Trotsky’s tendency to generalise the notion of the duality of power.

Dal Maso connects Lenin’s ‘last battle’ to Trotsky’s analysis of the emergence of bureaucracy as attempts to think revolutionary strategy. His conclusion is that the notion of hegemony can be an integral part of a permanent-revolution strategy, and he makes the important point that the struggle for hegemony remains crucial in the process of transition, as opposed to any conception of hegemony as mere leadership before the revolution.

Gramsci’s Critique of Trotsky Revisited

The second essay of the book deals with the question of how to read the references to Trotsky in the Prison Notebooks. This is an important essay with a solid ‘philological’ approach, which includes revisiting the open question of the extent of Gramsci’s actual knowledge of Trotsky’s writings after his imprisonment.10The early contacts of Gramsci with Trotsky in the context of the functions of the Third International have been documented by Frank Rosengarten (Rosengarten 2014).

Dal Maso reads carefully the paragraphs of the Prison Notebooks in which Gramsci discusses some of Trotsky’s positions. He begins with Gramsci’s well-known critical references to the notion of permanent revolution and how it was ‘systematised, developed, intellectualised by the Parvus-Bronstein group’.11Gramsci 1971, p. 85. Dal Maso stresses how this opposition between abstract theory and political realism in relation to the notion of permanent revolution will prove to be a recurring theme in Gramsci. He then moves on to Gramsci’s rejection of Trotsky’s criticism of Labriola, which he attributes to Gramsci’s opposition to any vulgar materialism such as Plekhanov’s. Taking as his starting point Gramsci’s critical references to Trotsky’s positions on the militarisation of work, Dal Maso insists that these were conjunctural interventions, and that in fact there are many more points of actual convergence between Gramsci and Trotsky on the relation between culture, industry, politics and hegemony in the transition period. Dal Maso attempts to answer Gramsci’s presentation of Trotsky as the theorist par excellence of ‘war of movement’ as opposed to ‘war of position’, by pointing to the fact that Gramsci probably did not have access to Trotsky’s later writings that offer a much more balanced approach to such questions. At the same time, Dal Maso stresses that Gramsci’s references to the first Five Year Plan and the way he insists upon a plan that ‘is executed democratically and with workers’ participation’ are also close to Trotsky’s critiques of Stalinism. Moreover, Dal Maso turns our attention to the importance of Q13, §14 where one can find a more positive appreciation of Trotsky, closer to Gramsci’s distinction between ‘East’ and ‘West’, ‘war of movement’ and ‘war of position’.

One attempt to begin a revision of the current tactical methods was perhaps that outlined by L. Dav. Br. [Trotsky] at the fourth meeting, when he made a comparison between the Eastern and Western fronts. The former had fallen at once, but unprecedented struggles had then ensued; in the case of the latter, the struggles would take place ‘beforehand’. The question, therefore, was whether civil society resists before or after the attempt to seize power; where the latter takes place, etc. However, the question was outlined only in a brilliant, literary form, without directives of a practical character.12Gramsci 1971, p. 236.

This is a less negative vision of Trotsky and an acknowledgement by Gramsci that Trotsky was indeed considering the strategy and tactics of the United Front, namely the political strategy that is the reference point for Gramsci’s thinking of a ‘war of position’ aiming at proletarian hegemony. On the other hand, in Q14, §68 Gramsci is again more critical of Trotsky, insisting that, with the theory of permanent revolution, he could not hope to understand the importance of hegemony and the need for the working class to ‘nationalise’ itself (in the sense of the ‘national-popular’) as part of the struggle for hegemony. Dal Maso insists that such passages represent the weaker side of Gramsci’s critique of Trotsky, in the form of an association of permanent revolution with frontal attack and with the absence of a hegemonic practice of politics. Finally, Dal Maso deals with the famous paragraphs on ‘black parliamentarism’. These are some of the densest passages of Gramsci’s writings: a parallel theorisation of both the evolution of fascism but also Stalinism, with the expulsion of Trotsky presented as evidence of the Soviet Union’s moving beyond even the Soviet version of ‘black parliamentarism’.

Dal Maso insists that some of Gramsci’s criticisms of Trotsky were directed more at a certain caricature of Trotsky, whereas in fact both interventions emerged in the same historical context and dealt with similar problems. In particular, he stresses the fact that the theory and practice of permanent revolution require the problematic of hegemony, in the sense that a strategy for hegemony can not only strengthen the unity of the subaltern classes but also the potential to move towards revolutionary positions.

The ‘Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’ Revisited

Finally, Dal Maso turns to Perry Anderson’s text on the antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.13Anderson 2017. Dal Maso stresses the importance that this text had, with its support for Trotsky over the supposed limitations of Gramsci and the ways that it enhanced the erroneous position that there is a strategic continuity between Gramsci, Togliatti and Eurocommunism. Dal Maso’s critique begins with a rejection of Anderson’s methodological choice to describe the antinomies in terms of slippages that bring Gramsci closer to reformist positions. Dal Maso does not limit his critique to the reproduction of Gianni Francioni’s demonstration14In Francioni 1984. See also the extended critique of Anderson’s positions in Thomas 2009. of the mistakes Anderson makes in his chronology of the passages from the Prison Notebooks upon which he bases his analysis of the three different approaches by Gramsci to the question of the relation between state and civil society. Instead, he wants to examine all aspects of Anderson’s argument. Dal Maso criticises Anderson for misrepresenting the depth and richness of Gramsci’s reading of the role of the state and the role of parliamentarism in enhancing the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. Similarly, and against Anderson’s critique, Dal Maso foregrounds the complexity of Gramsci’s theorisation of hegemony and the fact that, for Gramsci, hegemony is not only ‘ethical-political’ but also related to the economic structure, in the same sense that it is not only about the state but also the autonomous forms of organisation of the subaltern classes. In this sense, hegemony is directly linked to the question of political independence and the revolutionary party or the ‘Modern Prince’. Moreover, Dal Maso reminds us of the importance of Gramsci’s references to the ‘relation of military forces’,15Gramsci 1971, p. 182. which also offers a way to appreciate that Gramsci had a rather dialectical approach to both hegemony and power. That is why Gramsci does not have a conception of ‘cultural hegemony’ but rather a complex conception of the state and hegemony that includes culture as a terrain of struggle.

Dal Maso insists that, in contrast to Anderson’s position, there is a distance separating Gramsci’s war of position and Kautsky’s reformist strategy. For Dal Maso ‘war of position’ does not refer to a parliamentary strategy, it is not about gaining the electoral support of the majority, but rather it is an all-encompassing process of mobilisation, both social, political and military, with the central role being played by the relation of political forces as they are defined by the relation of military forces. Moreover, for Dal Maso a close and attentive reading of the Prison Notebooks can highlight the complexity of the relation between war of movement and war of position, but also the importance of the linkage between the notion of the passive revolution and the strategy of war of position. It is precisely the notion of passive revolution that enables a rethinking of the emergence of fascism and its limits, the new forms of black parliamentarism and the new conditions of political struggle. All this, according to Dal Maso, suggests that, in contrast to Anderson’s position that Gramsci had somehow lost his way, in actual fact he opened up new ways

Conclusion: Rethinking Revolutionary Strategy through with Gramsci

In sum, we are dealing here with an important contribution. This book does not deal simply with philological questions or questions of interpretation. There are important strategic questions too, pertinent to contemporary debates. In this sense, it is a book with a scope broader than the question of the relation between Gramsci and Trotsky. In the same way that Dal Maso insists that some of the criticisms Gramsci raises have more to do with specific positions (or ‘caricatures’ of positions), rather than Trotsky’s actual intervention, we can say that Dal Maso’s book is not simply about re-establishing a dialogue between Gramsci and Trotsky or finding real affinities between their theoretical and political projects. It is also a book about insisting that Gramsci’s work should be an integral aspect of any attempt to rethink questions of revolutionary strategy today.

And I would suggest that there are aspects of Gramsci’s thinking that are crucial for any attempt to rethink the possibility of a revolutionary strategy today. Contemporary social and political dynamics, which include the crisis of neoliberalism, the return of mass politics in certain social formations, the fact that in some cases political crisis has turned into a crisis of hegemony of an organic character, the sharp changes in political representation, all these have made the question of a radical break and transition again pertinent. There have been attempts to suggest that this can take the form of a parliamentary translation of social and political dynamics and the emergence of forms of left governance, but at the same time the limits of left governance have been evident in many instances, Greece being one those examples with the debacle of the SYRIZA government.

What were these limits? On the one we hand, we had the absence of a strategy of ruptures, of deeper social and institutional transformation that would have affected aspects of the social relations of production and reproduction and the many linkages to imperialism. On the other hand, there was the relative absence of forms of popular power from below with a potential of mass mobilisation against both the blackmail of international capital and international organisations such the EU and the IMF and the constant counter-attacks from the forces of capital. All these contradictions and relations of forces were materially condensed in the state but also expressed in the actual political condition of the subaltern classes and the fact that they remained to a certain extent disaggregated. These called for a strategy of hegemony and of building a new historical bloc, in the sense of a deeper transformation of the relation of forces and the emergence of new forms of expansive politicisation, radicalisation and cultural transformation of the subaltern class, and a strategy for power which would not be limited to electoral dynamics but extending also to the emergence of new and original forms of dual power, in the sense of new forms of popular power from below, forms of self-organisation, self-management, solidarity, and in certain instances self-defence. This points towards the need for a ‘war of position’ that would not be a ‘long march through the institutions’ but rather the creation of conditions that would again enable highly original forms of ‘war of movement’, a war of position that would also continue after any political break as a lasting process of transformation and experimentation. 

This is precisely what renders urgent a return to Gramsci as part of a return to the question of revolutionary strategy. Not as a return to the fantasy of an idealised version of the ‘revolution’ but as a reconnecting with the traditions of revolutionary Marxism as a means to rethink the radical originality and the experimental character of any potential revolutionary process today.


1 Bobbio 1979
2 The exception was Nicos Poulantzas, who in State, Power, Socialism accused Gramsci of remaining basically within the contours of a very classical Leninist conception of dual power (Poulantzas 2000).
3 Anderson 2017
4 See in particular his manuscript ‘Marx in his Limits’, published after his death (in Althusser 2006) and his manuscript Que faire? (Althusser 2018).
5 Day 2005.
6 These include the very rich Latin American Gramscian tradition, from José Arico, Juan Carlos Portantiero (see Portantiero 1981) and Carlos Nelson Coutinho to a younger generation, part of which is Dal Maso, to seminal books like Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s Gramsci and the State (Buci-Glucksmann 1980) or Peter D. Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment (Thomas 2009). See also Rosengarten 2014.
7 For the many readings of Gramsci in Italy, see Liguori 2012.
8 For this particular debate, see Corney (ed.) 2015.
9 Bukharin in Corney (ed.) 2015, p. 536.
10 The early contacts of Gramsci with Trotsky in the context of the functions of the Third International have been documented by Frank Rosengarten (Rosengarten 2014).
11 Gramsci 1971, p. 85.
12 Gramsci 1971, p. 236.
13 Anderson 2017.
14 In Francioni 1984. See also the extended critique of Anderson’s positions in Thomas 2009.
15 Gramsci 1971, p. 182.
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