Frank Rosengarten, The Revolutionary Marxism of Antonio Gramsci (Brill, 2014; Haymarket pb, 2015)

The Revolutionary Marxism of Antonio Gramsci collects essays written by Frank Rosengarten, a founding co-editor of Socialism and Democracy, from the late 1960s to the present. Its range in years is matched by its varied subject matter. Topics include: Gramsci as communist thinker and activist; Gramsci’s experience in prison; comparative studies with such thinkers as Edward Said, Betty Friedan, and C.L.R. James; and Rosengarten’s assessments of two other Gramsci scholars. One of the strengths of the book is its easy-to-read style; Rosengarten uses only as much jargon as is necessary to explain a concept or engage with a debate, defining and explaining terms along the way. In Gramsci studies, where dense, technical texts tend to be the norm, this is rather a rare and enjoyable find. The book is a treasure trove of ideas, many of which Rosengarten touches on only briefly, that offer strong starting points for further study.

The first and longest essay in the book, and one of its high points, is “The Gramsci-Trotsky Question.” The relationship between these two revolutionaries has been a matter of controversy, with various traditions claiming Gramsci for their own. If Gramsci’s ideas flow, with continuity, from Trotsky’s, this presents certain problems. Orthodox Communists object to his focus on working-class democracy, while his uncompromising revolutionary view upsets reformists, who prefer to see him as espousing a gradual road to socialism. Rosengarten wants to show that “Gramsci’s name should be associated with socialist democracy, not social democracy or democratic socialism” (17). The latter two concepts refer (interchangeably) to the idea that socialism will achieved primarily through reforms enacted by elected socialist governments.  Socialist democracy, by contrast, presupposes the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Rosengarten places Gramsci in this tradition without overlooking Gramsci’s real differences with Trotsky.

Gramsci and Trotsky first met in Russia in the early 1920s, when Gramsci was an Italian representative in the Communist International (Comintern). Although Gramsci found Trotsky arrogant, he had tremendous respect for him. The two worked together in 1922-23 on cultural issues and writing, with Trotsky including Gramsci’s essay on the Italian Futurists in Section IV of his book Literature and Revolution. But Trotsky influenced Gramsci in other ways as well. Rosengarten lists five major areas where Trotsky’s influence can be seen. First, Gramsci was won to the necessity of a United Front strategy in the fight against fascism. He had previously argued that only revolutionaries should lead the working class and the peasants, but he now came to believe that the struggle should also include reformists and others from oppressed classes who were willing to fight. Second, and related to this, his analysis of fascism was sharpened by Trotsky’s influence. Gramsci was ahead of most Italian Marxists in locating fascism’s class base in the middle classes, but he did not see it as different from other forms of bourgeois reaction. Trotsky argued that fascism’s mass appeal would allow it to crush workers’ organizations in ways not previously possible. Third, Trotsky’s fight, from 1923 on, against the bureaucratization of the Russian workers’ state and for broader party democracy was to have a lasting effect on Gramsci as an independent thinker. Fourth, in their work on culture, both men argued against a “proletarian moralism” that rejected the art and culture of the pre-revolutionary society as bourgeois. Finally, through Trotsky Gramsci came to accept that other countries might take a different road to socialism than the Russian model.

Despite all of this, Gramsci, in a famous 1926 letter, still sided with the Soviet leadership against Trotsky and other oppositionists. Why? Gramsci saw this time as a difficult one for the communist movement internationally. A split in the Russian party would lead to splits elsewhere and would be catastrophic for the workers’ movement. Unity must be maintained. In his letter, he agreed that Trotsky was the main threat to this unity but differed with hard-liners on three main points. One, he was for reintegrating the opposition, whom he regarded as good revolutionaries, not enemies. Two, unity must be won by persuasion, not brute force. And three, he reminded everyone that “Comrades Zinoviev, Trotsky, and Kamenev have contributed powerfully to educating us for the revolution, at times they have corrected us very energetically and severely, they have been our teachers” (22). Given the subsequent stigmatization and prosecution of Zinoviev, Trotsky, Kamenev, and many others, Gramsci appears not to have accepted the dominant view that the survival of the revolution was at stake.

Gramsci was imprisoned shortly after writing this letter. He wrote extensively in prison. His work there never diverted from what he had learned earlier in his career, whether in his concepts of the state or of hegemony, although he deepened and enriched these ideas in various ways. His Prison Notebooks illustrate a rejection of the uncritical and dogmatic approach to Marxism that was becoming more and more prevalent in the Comintern in the late 1920s. Gramsci thereby alienated his fellow communist prisoners, who looked to Russia for their ideas. As Rosengarten says,

Gramsci’s creative development of the Marxist method and his articulation of concepts that help to illuminate our contemporary situation do not owe their genesis to some mysterious visitation during his years in prison, but are rooted in the experiences he had as a leader of the Third International. (18)

This places Gramsci firmly in the classical Marxist tradition.

The essay “Gramsci’s Path from the ‘Ploughman’ to ‘Fertiliser’ of History” is a very useful exploration of a common question concerning the difference between his pre-prison writings and the Prison Notebooks. This difference in tone and style is often invoked to paint a picture of two different Gramscis. One is the firebrand revolutionary communist theoretician, activist, and leader, issuing urgent calls for revolution: “Factory workers and poor peasants are the two driving forces of the proletarian revolution . . . the iron battalions of the advancing proletarian army . . . which overturns obstacles by its sheer weight” (59). The other is the more abstract theoretician of the Prison Notebooks, who some believe changes his position on revolution and advocates gradualism for the more advanced capitalist countries.

The title of the essay comes from Gramsci, who recognized this evolution and embraced it philosophically. The reason for his shift in method was twofold: in prison, he was cut off from the organizational structures of which he had been a part since his youth; also, as Rosengarten notes (117), the later period found “the struggle for socialism in a moment of dispersion and pulverization of the workers’ movement.” The revolutionary optimism of the workers’ council movement of the early 1920s was over. Fascism was triumphant. This situation called for “fertilizing” ground that could be later “ploughed” by coming generations of revolutionaries.

Despite this shift in tone and method, Gramsci remained committed to working-class revolution, adapting his strategy and tactics to a changed situation. Rosengarten uses Gramsci’s theory of the war of position as an example. This is one of the key ideas cited by those who raise charges of reformism in Gramsci’s writings, but it is actually the idea of hegemony, learned in his earlier years, applied now to changing circumstances. Directly seizing power was no longer a possibility, so a more protracted struggle, a war of position, was called for: “What is involved, here, is a change of historical perspective that conditioned Gramsci’s thought, not absolute and permanent repudiation of the ideas that he had expounded in the years 1924 to 1926” (123). Failure to recognize the shifting historical circumstances led some of his former comrades to denounce Gramsci for opportunism in challenging the line coming out of Moscow, which was that revolution was an immediate possibility.

Throughout the book, Rosengarten shows an openness to writers outside the Marxist tradition who have been influenced by or who share similarities with Gramsci. One is the Palestinian activist and postcolonial theorist Edward Said. Rosengarten talks about Said in two essays, “The Contemporary Relevance of Gramsci’s Views on the Italian ‘Southern Question’” and “On the Qualities of Intellectuals: Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, and Betty Friedan.” Rosengarten admires Said as an intellectual and as an activist, and sees his approach as being heavily influenced by Gramsci. He argues that Said uses many of Gramsci’s key concepts, quoting Orientalism’s argument that “ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied”; thus, in Rosengarten’s view, “Gramsci helped open the way for the most far-reaching and dynamic aspects of postcolonial thought” (65-66).

Rosengarten does a fine job of bringing out Gramsci’s humanity, as shown in letters he wrote to his family from prison. He recognizes his historical place but also feels isolated and misunderstood by the outside world. These letters also offer a general look into the psychology of the prisoner. In Gramsci’s words, “After much suffering and many efforts at restraint, one becomes used to being an object without will and without subjectivity vis-à-vis the administrative machine that at any moment can ship you off in any direction, force you to change ingrained habits, etc., etc., so … the incarcerated man feels crushed and pulverized” (120).

Scholars and activists battling the system of mass incarceration, particularly of people of color, will find these writings useful as they advocate for current and former prisoners.

Some essays feel a bit rushed or cut short. For example, Rosengarten could have drawn out more of his ideas about Said and postcolonial studies. Also, even though his writing is clear and accessible, Rosengarten often assumes familiarity on the part of the reader with certain debates. These are, however, minor criticisms of an otherwise wonderful collection that will deepen your understanding of one of the great thinkers and revolutionaries of the twentieth century.

Reviewed by Joseph Cleffie

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