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Trotsky and Gramsci on Revolutionary Strategy

“Whereas other writers often see these two Marxists in conflict, Albamonte and Maiello view them not as adversaries, but as comrades-in-arms who have points of convergence alongside their differences.” Marxist historian Doug Greene discusses the main topics presented in a new book by two national leaders of the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS).

Doug Enaa Greene

September 15, 2016
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Following the recession of 2007-8, workers in the advanced capitalist countries have endured an onslaught of austerity measures and a decline in their living standards. The crisis has also fueled the rise of far-right parties such as the Golden Dawn in Greece in Greece and the National Front in France. Despite the immensity of the crisis, illusions in bourgeois democracy remains firmly intact. The left has not been much help in challenging those illusions, but supports various “neo-reformist” movements or figures such as SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) in Portugal. However, these desperate times cry out for a renewal of revolutionary and communist strategy. With the lack of strategic discussion, Albamonte and Maiello’s new book, Gramsci and Trotsky aims to fill that gap. Their book consists of two lengthy essays that explore the thinking of two of the most important 20th century revolutionaries–Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci–on revolutionary tactics and strategy. Whereas other writers often see these two Marxists in conflict, Albamonte and Maiello view them not as adversaries, but as comrades-in-arms who have points of convergence alongside their differences. Their work is a welcome contribution, that is theoretically sharp, well-written and informed on the latest literature.

I. The German Revolution

The first half of the book explores how Trotsky and Gramsci dealt with questions of the united front, strategy and the class struggle in light of the 1923 German Revolution.

Debates on the united front marked a shift in the strategy of the Communist International (Comintern) after the failure of an earlier “leftist” insurrectionism, most notably during the 1921 March Action in Germany that was a crushing defeat for the German Communist Party (KPD). Trotsky was one of the main proponents of the turn towards the united front at the Comintern’s Third (1921) and Fourth Congresses (1922).

The united front was conceived as a defensive strategy where communists would ally with social democrats and other forces to defend workers’ living standards and organizations from capitalist assaults. However, the united front was not strictly defensive, but involved the strategic goal of allowing communists to win “the majority of the working class for revolution as a result of their common experiences or their rejection of their reformist or centrist leaderships.” (p. 24)

The workers’ government was not a simple reformist government, but a means to arm the working class and rally them to take the offensive.

The debate in the Comintern on the potentially revolutionary role of “workers’ governments” grew directly out of the united front strategy. The workers’ government was seen as a means for communists to secure a revolutionary bastion as part of a deepening class struggle. A workers’ government was conceived of as a government of socialists, with communists either in coalition with it, or supporting it as a loyal opposition. The workers’ government was not a simple reformist government, but a means to arm the working class and rally them to take the offensive. Communist support for workers’ governments was not as an end in itself or confined within the boundaries of bourgeois legality, but as a transitional demand and jumping off point for creating the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The united front and workers’ government were soon put to the test as a revolutionary situation developed in Germany in 1923. After Germany was unable to pay its reparations payments, the French army invaded the industrial heartland of the Ruhr in January. This event caused the collapse of the German economy, hyper-inflation, mass unemployment, the rise of the Nazis, and reopened the possibilities for communist revolution. Workers flocked to the KPD, formed factory committees and Proletarian Hundreds (working class militia) to secure food, control out-of-control prices and defend themselves against the right-wing.

In the states of Saxony and Thuringia there was an opportunity to form workers’ governments between the KPD and leftists in the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In October, the KPD and SPD (with the support of Trotsky and the Comintern) formed coalition governments in both Saxony and Thuringia. The KPD and Comintern planned for the workers’ governments to strengthen the Proletarian Hundreds and disarm right-wing paramilitaries. It was believed this would cause the national government to send in the Reichswehr (German army). This would be the signal for insurrection throughout the rest of Germany around the slogan of defense of the ‘workers’ government’ against the Reichswehr. In other words, a strategy of defense turn into a revolutionary offensive.

However, the workers’ governments made no practical measures to arm the Proletarian Hundreds, while social democrats in the factory committees refused to support any general strike or insurrection against the Reichswehr. On October 21, when the Reichswehr was sent into Saxony and Thuringia to restore order, the KPD’s plans were in total disarray, forcing them to call off the planned insurrection. Only in Hamburg did an abortive uprising occur (since they didn’t get word that the uprising was canceled). The failure of the “German October” marked the last gasp of the revolutionary wave in Europe which had begun with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Upon reflection, Trotsky argued that the KPD failed because their strategy was “confined within the framework of bourgeois constitutional legality and limited by its confidence in the left wing of social democracy.” (p. 29) Secondly, the KPD showed that “when the entire objective situation demanded that the party undertake a decisive blow, the party did not act to organise the revolution but kept awaiting it.” (p. 35) Lastly, the KPD leadership lost their nerve and failed at the decisive moment to shift from a “war of position” to a “war of maneuver.”

Although Trotsky offered a sober assessment for the failure of the German Revolution, the Comintern did not draw up a balance-sheet nor they believe that the revolutionary wave in Europe had passed. Instead, the Comintern still believed the conquest of power by communists was on the immediate agenda.

At the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in 1924 (the first after Lenin died), Trotsky was the sole defender of the original formula of the united front. Trotsky argued that the Comintern needed to continue following the united front strategy while simultaneously avoiding both the right danger of adapting to social democracy and the left deviation of putschism.

The Comintern refused to adopt this strategic line and proclaimed just a few years later that revolution was on the horizon and abandoned the united front for sectarian isolation. The “third period” line proved disastrous for the KPD and the German working class in face of the rising Nazi threat.

For Trotsky, one of the great lessons of the German revolution was that it was an era of great turns, where the political situation changed quickly, which communists had to appreciate in order to quickly shift their tactics and strategy.

In contrast to Trotsky, Gramsci made no substantial contributions in the Comintern on the German Revolution. His conclusion was of a more “‘general’ character, that is, that the existence of more solid superstructures in the ‘west’ made the “actions of the masses slower and more cautious.” (p. 40) Gramsci argued that the appropriate strategy for revolutionaries in the west was a “war of position” (which he saw as the united front in action) as opposed to a frontal “war of maneuver,” which was more appropriate to the east.

Trotsky agreed with Gramsci that the political structures in the west differed from the east, but he proposed a different strategy. As mentioned, for Trotsky, the main issue was preparing communists to recognize that strategy in this conjuncture required rapidly moving from defense to offense (and back). However, Gramsci’s “war of position” did not envision such abrupt turns, but transformed the united front tactic into a long-term strategy and did not countenance a rapid shift to a “war of maneuver.” While Gramsci’s advocacy of the united front converged with Trotsky in opposing the third period, he ended up “mechanically [contrasting] the strategies for the ‘East’ and the ‘West” (p. 42), leaving the transition to the offensive as one of his more ambiguous strategic reflections.

Albamonte and Maiello argue that Trotsky viewed revolutionary strategy not as a series of scholastic questions, but as living ones for communists who needed to be trained in an orientation which could analyze both defensive and offensive moments, utilize revolutionary bastions as launching pads for the seizure of power, and prepare themselves for abrupt changes of fortune. Trotsky’s appreciation for these vital questions made him the “most Clausewitzian of Marxists.” (p. 65)

II. Capitalist Democracy and Hegemony

In the second half, Albamonte and Maiello shift from debates on the German Revolution to Trotsky and Gramsci on questions of theory and strategy of revolutionary strategy in the west–such as linking daily struggles to the conquest of power, the utilization of radical-democratic slogans, and questions of hegemony.

For Trotsky and Gramsci, questions of strategy are approached from the vantage point of Leninism. A Leninist approach does not separate, but links day-to-day struggles to the final goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat. On this basis, Leninists conceive of a defensive strategy which takes advantage of the openings and cracks in bourgeois society (ex. parliament) in order to accumulate forces (build a revolutionary party) for eventually taking the offensive. In contrast to reformists, Leninists argue that parliament can only be utilized by socialists and communists under their own banners, in order to expose and tear off its democratic mask and mobilize an extra-parliamentary movement to undermine bourgeois hegemony. The role of the united front is to create alliances with other working class forces in pursuing common objectives. The overall goal of the united front is to win the working class away from their reformist leaders and rally them for the struggle for power.

In contrast to reformists, Leninists argue that parliament can only be utilized by socialists and communists under their own banners, in order to expose and tear of its democratic mask and mobilize an extra-parliamentary movement to undermine bourgeois hegemony.

While Leninists work to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, social democrats and their allies in labor unions reinforce the rule of the bourgeoisie. “In the ‘West,’ conciliatory leaderships have the ‘virtue’ of being able to hide behind the institutions of bourgeois democracy, parliamentarism, the separation of powers, the judiciary, etc. They are both sustained by and help to sustain illusions in capitalist democracy.” (p. 88-89) These reformist institutions are a “material force” which gives life to the “moral force” of illusions in bourgeois democracy that preserves the hegemony of the ruling class. In order for revolutionaries to win over the working class, the influence of these forces has to be removed.

Creating a counter-hegemonic force requires a defensive strategy which protects the institutions of the working class, but advances through bold and precise strikes. According to the military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, “The defensive form in war is not a simple shield but a shield made up of well-directed blows.” (p. 87) One example of “well-directed blows” in a Leninist strategy of defense is the use of radical-democratic slogans. On a number of occasions (ex. Lyons Theses of 1926 or the KPD in the 1930s), Gramsci and Trotsky advocated their use as a means to build the confidence of the working class and accumulate revolutionary forces.

Trotsky and Gramsci believed that when a crisis erupts and the ruling class attacks the proletariat (whether through austerity or rolling back democratic rights), this presents an opportunity for revolutionaries to win a majority to their side through the use of radical-democratic slogans and united front tactics. On the one hand, while the mass of workers are not radical, radical-democratic slogans serve as a bridge from reformist to revolutionary consciousness. On the other hand, the united front is not bound to defend democracy by various forms of bourgeois legality, but defends democracy through revolutionary means. Yet it is imperative for communists to recognize the right moment to shift from a defensive strategy and move on the attack, otherwise it transforms into its opposite and “bridges become barriers.” (p. 103)

While Trotsky and Gramsci had similar approaches to the role of reformist and union bureaucracies, they differed on their strategies on how to confront them. Gramsci’s conception of a long-term “war of position” meant he saw a united front between revolutionaries and reformists as “a permanent tactic which continues ‘until the eve of the proletariat revolution.’” (p. 116) Albamonte and Maiello argue that Gramsci’s ambiguities on the role of the bureaucracy meant he underestimated its role in maintaining bourgeois hegemony. However, Trotsky developed the theoretical foundation to understand the role of the bureaucracy in buttressing hegemony. According to Trotsky, a united front did not absolve communists of the day-to-day responsibility of exposing the role of reformist bureaucrats in maintaining bourgeois hegemony. Illusions in bourgeois democracy and reformism don’t simply vanish during a crisis. For instance, in a crisis, reformist coalitions such as Popular Fronts will wind up reinforcing illusions in bourgeois democracy and open the door to the counterrevolution. Therefore, it is a strategic necessity for communists to build their own organizations in advance of a crisis and oppose the reformists and labor bureaucrats.

Contrary to some Gramsci commentators, Albamonte and Maiello argue that the task of undermining bourgeois hegemony does not take place outside of the class struggle nor can the repressive power of the capitalist state be neutralized by the working class just winning through consensual means. These are reformist dead-ends. Rather, proletariat hegemony is captured not by peaceful development within the bourgeois state, but in a revolutionary break against it. The constitution of the workers into a class passes through the development of revolutionary tendencies in all fields of struggle and combating those forces (ex. reformist and union bureaucracies) which ensure bourgeois hegemony.

III. Final Reflections

Albamonte and Maiello present a thought-provoking work on revolutionary strategy, that is deeply informed on both Marxism and military theory. They show Trotsky not as dogmatist or sectarian, but as a dynamic strategist attuned to the rapids of revolution, who asks the difficult questions of what it takes to actually win (my own appreciation of Trotsky as a revolutionary strategist can be found here and here . This should be warmly welcomed by the revolutionary left.

Although Trotsky is generally seen as a superior Marxist strategist by Albamonte and Maiello, they view Gramsci not as a closet reformist or cultural critic, but as a revolutionary communist. They take issue with those who erase the beating heart of Gramsci, saying, “Any analysis of Gramsci which does not base itself on the problems of the revolution is not taking Gramsci seriously.” (p. 150) However, their account on Gramsci being ambiguous on navigating the transition from “war of position” to “war of maneuver” can use some correction. For Gramsci, the proletariat uses the “war of position” to accumulate its force and when a crisis occurs, this changes the arena of struggle for both the working class and the capitalist class. A crisis does not automatically produce revolution or a change in consciousness. Yet the ruling class is much better organized than the forces of the revolutionary left and able to adapt more quickly to a crisis (ex. reshaping class alliances, restoring profitability, etc.). On the other hand, a crisis often leaves left-wing forces disoriented and unable to adapt themselves to the emerging situation and the possibilities which it offers, but remain bound by outmoded formulas and strategy. Rather the crisis, in comparison to “normal times” provides an opening for communists to explain their ideas to a more receptive audience, but they cannot expect a revolution to spontaneously emerge. Communists need to be actively involved in struggle–organizing and open to the possibilities of the conjuncture (something I discuss at length here).

Perhaps the biggest complaint is that 158 pages is far too little space to discuss all the sides to Gramsci and Trotsky on strategy, hegemony and revolution. There is so much more to say. Yet this book should be eagerly read by revolutionaries in preparation for the battles ahead.

The book is available for purchase here.

Doug Enaa Greene is an independent historian living in the greater Boston area and the author of the forthcoming book, Specters of Communism: Blanqui and Marx.

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Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian from the Boston area. He has written biographies of the communist insurgent Louis Auguste Blanqui and DSA founder Michael Harrington. His forthcoming book, The Dialectics of Saturn, examines Marxist debates about Stalinism.

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