Insurrection and Gramsci’s “War of Position”


One of the most important features of Gramsci’s social theory was his analysis of the distinction between war of maneuver and war of position. In the context of a relatively underdeveloped civil society such as found in the ‘East,’ he argued, revolutionary strategy required a direct frontal assault – a war of maneuver – against the principal form of bourgeois political power: the state. In the ‘West,’ however, with its more fully developed civil society, such a direct, lightning frontal assault against the state would likely fail. In this case, revolutionary strategy must be a slower, more protracted process of siege warfare, a war of position, in which subordinate classes wear away the existing civil society and, through their self-organization, create a new one (Gramsci 1971).

As Gramsci’s work became better known beginning in the 1960s, it became an important resource for rejecting the Leninist strategy of insurrection that had dominated Marxism since the Bolshevik Revolution. For Boggs, the distinction between war of maneuver and war of position reflected the difference between “the classical Leninist model of ‘minority revolution’… [based on] the superimposition of a new order from above, which cannot help but take on a mechanistic and elitist character” and a model of revolution – which he labels “Gramscian” – which is “infinitely more complex and multi-dimensional, with more of a popular or consensual basis” (Boggs 1976: 115). Boggs further pointed to “the Leninist focus on the ‘conjunctural’” (53) in associating war of maneuver with a “passing and momentary” (114) stage of revolution, in contrast to the more organic nature of war of position.Adamson argued that Gramsci’s war of position is “a fundamentally new theory of revolution” in which “the dictatorship of the proletariat loses its Leninist connotations and arrives instead only in a majoritarian form” (Adamson 1980: 225). According to Femia, “[w]hat Gramsci’s proposals amounted to, in effect, was the abandonment of the hallowed Bolshevik model” (Femia 1987: 53). Finally, Laclau and Mouffe (1985), in their distinction between democratic and authoritarian forms of hegemony, attributed to the former a cultural and participatory form of struggle, and to the latter, a centralized, militaristic form. Implicit in these statements is a rejection of insurrectionary strategy in favor of a counter-hegemonic one.

The contrast between a centralized, militarized Leninist strategy of insurrection and Gramsci’s participatory, counter-hegemonic strategy has since become a taken-for-granted feature of contemporary radical politics. The purpose of this paper is to examine critically this assumption. I first examine how Engels, and then Lenin and Trotsky, understood the role of insurrection in proletarian revolution. I then examine the degeneration of this understanding of insurrection as expressed in the policies of the Communist International. I argue that the ‘Leninist’ strategy against which Gramsci posed his counter-hegemonic approach is at best a distortion of the classical Marxist theory of insurrection.

Engels and insurrection

Engels had a longstanding interest in military matters, stemming in part from his own experience of military service as an artilleryman and of barricade fighting during the 1848 revolution. In addition, Engels made extensive study of the major 19th-century military theorists. His analysis of modern warfare had important implications for his analysis of revolution. He argued that, just as the rise of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by the Napoleonic revolution in warfare, “[t]he emancipation of the proletariat, too, will have its particular military expression, it will give rise to a specific, new method of warfare” (Engels 1975: 550). However, the conquest of political power by the proletariat was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the “real emancipation of the proletariat” (553), and so talk of an explicitly proletarian military strategy was premature. Instead, “the revolution will have to wage war with the means and by the methods of the general modern warfare” (555). In the context of the 1848 revolutions, the strategy of insurrection was grounded in a war of maneuver:

insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them. Those rules, logical deductions from the nature of the parties and the circumstances one has to deal with in such a case, are so plain and simple that the short experience of 1848 had made the Germans pretty well acquainted with them. Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority; unless you bring strong odds against them you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed uprising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendency which the first successful uprising has given to you; rally those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known, de l’audace [daring], de l’audace, encore de l’audace! (Engels 1969: 100).

For Engels, victory in armed uprising marked “the day of the decision” (Engels 1969: 27), the ultimately decisive factor in proletarian revolution.

By the time he wrote the introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France 1848-1850 (Marx 1964) in 1895, Engels had modified his earlier analysis of revolutionary strategy. The insurrectionary tactics of 1848 were no longer applicable, he argued, as developments in military technology, urban space, transportation, etc. made the advantages of organized militaries over revolutionaries even greater. As a result, “[t]he mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete from every point of view” (Marx 1964: 13):

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it is just this work which we are now pursuing, and with a success that drives the enemy to despair (Marx 1964: 25).

Instead of directly confronting the bourgeois military through a frontal attack, which in contemporary conditions would be suicidal, Engels argued that a ‘long, persistent’ process of undermining the military from within was necessary before such a frontal attack could succeed. This explains Engels’ support for general military conscription in Germany; not only would workers acquire the necessary military skills and training to fight effectively when the frontal attack occurs, but also a military that has been thoroughly permeated by the working class would more likely refuse to turn its guns on the workers when the moment of insurrection arrives.

Engels did not see this protracted struggle as eliminating the need for armed insurrection, however. He was highly critical of an unauthorized edited version to his “Introduction,” published in the German Social Democratic Party’s paper Vorwärts (see Engels 1922), which appeared to support the SPD’s “tactics of peace at any price and of opposition to force and violence” (Marx & Engels 1982b: 461) and made Engels “appear as a peaceful worshipper of legality at any price” (Marx & Engels 1982a: 461). In an important section that had been excised in the SPD version of the “Introduction,” Engels asked whether the concern with undermining the bourgeois military from within meant

that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom in the beginning of a great revolution than in its further progress, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces. (Marx 1964: 24-25)

This developed more fully an already existing reality, which was that “[e]ven in the classic time of street fighting…the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect. It was a means of shaking the steadfastness of the military. If it held out until this was attained, then victory was won; if not, there was defeat” (23). In other words, Engels saw insurrection not as a narrowly-defined military strategy but rather “a form of political warfare” (Draper & Haberkern 2005: 189; emphasis in original) that integrated, in Gramscian terms, revolutionary forms of coercive and hegemonic power. The political struggle associated with organizing a mutiny within the bourgeois military was to be the prelude to an armed uprising, which was, for Engels, still the decisive moment of the proletarian revolution.

Lenin, Trotsky and insurrection

Lenin and Trotsky elaborated further and put into practice Engels’ concept of insurrection as the dialectical relation of politics and war. Following Engels, both referred to the importance of Clausewitz for the development of a Marxist analysis of war:

Applied to wars, the main thesis of dialectics so shamelessly distorted by Plekhanov to please the bourgeoisie consists in this, that ‘war is nothing but a continuation of political relations by other [i.e., forcible] means.’ This formula belongs to Clausewitz, one of the greatest writers on the history of war…. And this was always the standpoint of Marx and Engels, who looked upon every war as a continuation of the politics of given interested nations – and various classes inside of them – at a given time. (Lenin 1930: 18)

One of the greatest theoreticians of military matters, the German Clausewitz, wrote that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means.’ In other words, war, too, is politics, realized through the harsh means of blood and iron. And that is true. War is politics, and the army is the instrument of this politics. (Trotsky 1979: 211)

In applying Clausewitz to revolutionary war, Lenin and Trotsky did not mean to say that the political was determinate at all levels of military affairs. Instead, they recognized that, in this context, the military had a certain degree of autonomy from politics. Lenin saw armed uprising as “a special form of political struggle” (Lenin 1964a: 179) and, in the context of this struggle, “the tremendous importance of military knowledge, of military technique, and of military organization” (Lenin 1965a: 565). Trotsky, in an article examining Engels’ writings on the Franco-Prussian War, developed this point in greater detail. He argued that while “war is in the last analysis subordinated” to politics (Trotsky 1971b: 171), “war continues politics, but with special means and methods” (168); it was thus incumbent upon revolutionaries to study these means and methods, to become expert at military strategy and tactics.

Lenin cited approvingly Engels’ statement that insurrection is an art (Lenin 1964a) and added:

the principal rule of this art is a desperately bold and irrevocably determined offensive. We have not sufficiently assimilated this truth. We have not sufficiently learned, nor have we taught the masses this art and this rule to attack at all costs. We must make up for this with all our energy. It is not enough to rally round political slogans, we must also rally round the question of an armed uprising…. We must proclaim from the housetops the necessity of a bold offensive and armed attack, the necessity of exterminating at such times the persons in command of the enemy and of a most energetic fight for the wavering troops (Lenin 1934: 38-39).

He argued that “[a]n overwhelming superiority of forces at the decisive point at the decisive moment – this ‘law’ of military success is also the law of political success, especially in that fierce, seething civil war which is called revolution” (Lenin 1965d: 258). Trotsky made a similar argument, stating that since revolutionary situations were generally short-lived, it was essential that revolutionaries be prepared to take the offensive and strike quickly and unrelentingly: “attack is the only proper method for military risings: attack without any interruptions that might engender hesitation and disorder” (Trotsky 1971a: 209). In “a developing revolutionary situation,’ he argued, “a planned retreat is, from the start, unthinkable” (264).

Lenin was sharply critical of those who saw insurrection as the work of a small vanguard, and instead argued that it must be based on a mass movement of workers and peasants:

[t]o be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning-point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism. (Lenin 1964b: 22-23)

He argued that insurrection could be condemned as Blanquism

if it is organized not by a party of a definite class, if its organizers have not analyzed the political moment in general and the international situation in particular, if the party has not on its side the sympathy of the majority of the people, as proved by objective facts, if the development of revolutionary events has not brought about a practical refutation of the conciliatory illusions of the petty-bourgeoisie, if the majority of the Soviet-type organs of revolutionary struggle that have been recognized as authoritative or have shown themselves to be such in practice have not been won over, if there has not matured a sentiment in the army (if in war-time) against the government that protracts the unjust war against the will of the whole people, if the slogans of the uprising (like ‘All power to the Soviets,’ ‘land to the peasants,’ or ‘Immediate offer of a democratic peace to all the belligerent nations, with an immediate abrogation of all secret treaties and secret diplomacy,’ etc.) have not become widely known and popular, if the advanced workers are not sure of the desperate situation of the masses and of the support of the countryside, a support proved by a serious peasant movement or by an uprising against the landowners and the government that defends the landowners, if the country’s economic situation inspires earnest hopes for a favorable solution of the crisis by peaceable and parliamentary means. (Lenin 1964c: 212-213)

Revolutionary war was not an isolated ‘military’ activity, but instead reflected, and must reflect, the politics of class struggle.

The role of the party, therefore, was not to will an insurrection into existence, but to understand when a structural crisis of ruling class power was accompanied by sufficient political and cultural organization among the working masses to create a revolutionary situation:

A people’s revolution, true, cannot be timed…. But if we have really prepared an uprising, and if a popular uprising is realizable by virtue of the revolutions in social relations that have already taken place, then it is quite possible to time the uprising. (Lenin 1977: 153)

At that point, the party’s political leadership of the insurrection would be a necessary condition of its success. In the absence such leadership, armed struggle would not only be ineffective but would also likely demoralize and weaken the revolutionary movement. In the early years of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), Lenin voiced opposition to those who sought an immediate offensive against the bourgeoisie. It is useful to quote a 1901 article by Lenin at length here:

Far be it from us to deny the significance of heroic individual blows, but it is our duty to sound a vigorous warning against becoming infatuated with terror, against taking it to be the chief and basic means of struggle, as so many people strongly incline to do at present. Terror can never be a regular military operation; at best it can only serve as one of the methods employed in a decisive assault. But can we issue the call for such a decisive assault at the present moment? Rabocheye Dyelo apparently thinks we can. At any rate, it exclaims: “Form assault columns!” But this, again, is more zeal than reason. The main body of our military forces consists of volunteers and insurgents. We possess only a few small units of regular troops, and these are not even mobilized; they are not connected with one another, nor have they been trained to form columns of any sort, let alone assault columns. In view of all this, it must be clear to anyone who is capable of appreciating the general conditions of our struggle and who is mindful of them at every “turn” in the historical course of events that at the present moment our slogan cannot be “To the assault”, but has to be, “Lay siege to the enemy fortress”. In other words, the immediate task of our Party is not to summon all available forces for the attack right now, but to call for the formation of a revolutionary organization capable of uniting all forces and guiding the movement in actual practice and not in name alone, that is, an organization ready at any time to support every protest and every outbreak and use it to build up and consolidate the fighting forces suitable for the decisive struggle. (Lenin 1961: 19-20)

Continuing this line of argument in What is to be Done?, he stated that

our ‘tactics-as-plan’ consists in rejecting the immediate call for assault; in demanding ‘to lay effective siege to the enemy fortress’; or, in other words, in demanding that all efforts be directed towards gathering, organizing, and mobilizing a permanent army. (Lenin 1969: 167)

The revolutionary upheavals of 1905, for Lenin, provided the mass movement that would make the transition from ‘siege’ to ‘assault’ not only possible but necessary. In this context, Lenin embraced the formation of small fighting squads to engage in guerrilla warfare as a means of assassinating officials and ‘expropriating’ funds to finance revolutionary activities (Lenin 1972) and criticized the failure to develop such tactics more fully (1965b); he saw guerrilla warfare “as an inevitable form of struggle at a time when the mass movement has actually reached the point of an uprising and when fairly large intervals occur between the ‘big engagements’ in the civil war” (1965c: 219). Such tactics, however, unconnected to any kind of centralized political leadership and ungrounded in a revolutionary mass movement were, for him, were not simply ineffective acts of terrorism but in fact weakened the revolution.

With the defeat of the 1905 revolution, the Bolsheviks’ strategy shifted from assault back to siege. It was not until 1917, following the February Revolution which overthrew the Tsar and installed a bourgeois government, that the potential for insurrection appeared once again. Just before his return to Russia from exile in Switzerland in April 1917, Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks should organize a proletarian militia linked organically to the Soviets to “fight for bread, for peace, and for freedom” (Lenin 1932: 24), to serve as a bulwark against counterrevolution, and to provide “a real means for educating the masses so that they might be able to take part in all the affairs of the state” (31). This did not mean, however, an unqualified embrace of insurrection. Lenin was critical of the Bolshevik Military Organization’s attempt at an uprising in July 1917 (the ‘July days’) as premature: the Bolsheviks had not yet established their leadership within the Petrograd Soviet nor had they won over the Petrograd garrison. By October, this situation had turned in favor of the Bolsheviks, and it only at this point that, for Lenin, the moment had come to shift again from the strategic defensive to the offensive (Rabinowitch 1968).

Similarly, Trotsky argued that while “insurrection, armed insurrection,… was inevitable from our point of view,” revolutionary forces could not force an insurrection into being independent of a specific balance of forces. While he embraced the tactical rules of insurrection created by Blanqui – “a timely creation of correct revolutionary detachments, their centralized command and adequate equipment, a well calculated placement of barricades, their definite construction, and a systematic, not a mere episodic, defense of them” – he rejected the larger point “that an observance of the rules of insurrectionary tactics would itself guarantee the victory” (Trotsky 1980b: 170). In his analysis of the 1905 revolution, in which he led the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky made clear that “we never prepared an insurrection…; we prepared for an insurrection” (1971a: 396). Revolutionary forces must be ready to take advantage of an appropriate shift in the balance of forces, one in which there is an objective crisis of ruling-class power as well as a spontaneous movement among the subordinate classes calling into question the existing mode of production, which brings forth an insurrectionary moment:

if it is true that an insurrection cannot be evoked at will, and that nevertheless in order to win it must be organized in advance, then the revolutionary leaders are presented with a task of correct diagnosis…. Between the moment when an attempt to summon an insurrection must inevitably prove premature and lead to a revolutionary miscarriage, and the moment when a favorable situation must be considered hopelessly missed, there exists a certain period – it may be measured in weeks, sometimes in a few months – in the course of which an insurrection may be carried out with more or less chance of success. To discriminate this comparatively short period and then choose the definite moment – now in the more accurate sense of the very day and hour – for the last blow, constitutes the most responsible task of the revolutionary leaders. It can with full justice be called the key problem, for it unites the policy of revolution with the technique of insurrection – and it is needless to add that insurrection, like war, is a continuation of politics with other instruments. (Trotsky 1980b: 172-173)

It is the activity and consciousness of the masses, not of the political vanguard, which makes insurrection possible; in the context of the February 1917 revolution, Trotsky spoke of the importance of “the molecular work of revolutionary thought” (1980a: 151) in setting the stage for revolution. Once the possibility of insurrection has become real, however, the vanguard must provide the political leadership necessary for a successful armed uprising.

Trotsky argued that “there can be no question of a purely military victory by the insurgents over the government troops. The latter are bound to be physically stronger, and the problem must always be reduced to the mood and behavior of the troops” (1971a: 268). In other words, the success of insurrection is based less on a narrowly-defined clash of armed force and instead is grounded in the way that armed uprising affects consciousness. “The first task of every insurrection,” Trotsky argued,

is to bring the troops over to its side. The chief means of accomplishing this are the general strike, mass processions, street encounters, battles at the barricades. The unique thing about the October revolution, a thing never before observed in so complete a form, was that, thanks to a happy combination of circumstances, the proletarian vanguard had won over the garrison of the capital before the moment of open insurrection,. It had not only won them over, but had fortified this conquest through the organization of the Garrison Conference. It is impossible to understand the mechanics of the October revolution without fully realizing that the most important task of the insurrection, and one of the most difficult to calculate in advance, was fully accomplished in Petrograd before the beginning of the armed struggle. (1980b: 181-182)

That is, the successful use of military force in an insurrection requires the winning over of the army to the revolution before the first shot has been fired. This process, according to Trotsky, continues after the commencement of combat:

In every revolution, the significance of barricades is not at all the same as that of fortresses in a battle. A barricade is not just a physical obstacle. The barricade serves the cause of the insurrection because, by creating a temporary barrier to the movement of troops, it brings them into close contact with the people. Here, at the barricades, the soldier hears – perhaps for the first time in his life – the talk of ordinary honest people, their fraternal appeals, the voice of the people’s conscience; and, as a consequence of such contact between citizens and soldiers, military discipline disintegrates and disappears. This, and only this, ensures the victory of a popular uprising.

Trotsky, as did Engels, emphasized the “moral role” (Trotsky 1971a: 397) played by barricade fighting, not its narrowly defined military qualities.

The winning over of the army to the people is not, according to Trotsky, a peaceful, spontaneous process:

The army’s crossing over to the camp of the revolution is a moral process; but it cannot be brought about by moral means alone. Different motives and attitudes combine and intersect within the army; only a minority is consciously revolutionary, while the majority hesitates and awaits an impulse from outside. The majority is capable of laying down its arms or, eventually, of pointing its bayonets at the reaction only if it begins to believe in the possibility of a people’s victory. Such a belief is not created by political agitation alone. Only when the soldiers become convinced that the people have come out into the streets for a life-and-death struggle – not to demonstrate against the government but to overthrow it – does it become psychologically possible for them to ‘cross over to the side of the people.’ (Trotsky 1971a: 268-269)

He continued,

a popular rising has been ‘prepared,’ not when the people have been armed with rifles and guns – for in that case it would never be prepared – but when it is armed with readiness to die in open street battle. (1971a: 398)

What is most essential, then, about an armed insurrection is not so much the coercive power of weapons available to the revolutionaries but rather the role that consciousness plays, both in terms of the willingness of the subordinate classes to die in struggle and in terms of undermining the bourgeois army’s commitment to defend the existing social formation. Even when the people engage in direct combat with the army, the effect of the people’s use of armed violence is, for Trotsky, more cultural than coercive: “an insurrection is, in essence, not so much a struggle against the army as a struggle for the army” (1971a: 269).

The development of such a consciousness does not, however, eliminate the need for armed struggle. In his study of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky noted that

The overwhelming majority of the garrison was, it is true, on the side of the workers. But a minority was against the workers, against the revolution, against the Bolsheviks. This small minority consisted of the best trained elements in the army: the officers, the Junkers, the shock battalions, and perhaps the Cossacks. It was impossible to win these elements politically; they had to be vanquished. The last part of the task of the revolution, that which has gone into history under the name of the October insurrection, was therefore purely military in character. At this final stage rifles, bayonets, machine guns, and perhaps cannon, were to decide. (1980b: 182)

The people’s use of armed violence thus has different functions which are relevant for different classes. Violence, when directed at the rank-and-file of the bourgeois military, is intended to win them over to the counter-hegemony of the revolutionaries. When directed at those class elements within the military whose commitment to the existing social formation is unwavering, violence is meant to destroy the enemy. To the extent, though, that the first goal is accomplished, the duration and severity of armed conflict diminishes. Indeed, Trotsky was struck by just how little ‘insurrection’ characterized the October Revolution:

Step by step we have tried to follow in this book the development of the October insurrection: the sharpening discontent of the worker masses, the coming over of the soviets to the Bolshevik banners, the indignation of the army, the campaign of the peasants against the landlords, the flood-tide of the national movement, the growing fear and distraction of the possessing and ruling classes, and finally the struggle for the insurrection within the Bolshevik party. The final act of the revolution seems, after all this, too brief, too dry, too business-like – somehow out of correspondence with the historic scope of the events. The reader experiences a kind of disappointment. He is like a mountain climber, who, thinking the main difficulties are still ahead, suddenly discovers that he is already on the summit or almost there. Where is the insurrection? There is no picture of the insurrection. The events do not form themselves into a picture. A series of small operations, calculated and prepared in advance, remain separated one from another both in space and time. A unity of thought and aim unites them, but they do not fuse in the struggle itself. There is no action of great masses. There are no dramatic encounters with the troops. There is nothing of all that which imaginations brought up upon the facts of history associate with the idea of insurrection. (Trotsky 1980b: 232)

With mass support among the workers, peasants, and soldiers and sailors, “[d]emonstrations, street fights, barricades – everything comprised in the usual idea of insurrection – were almost entirely absent. The revolution had no need of solving a problem already solved” (292).

The Communist International and insurrection

The most complete statement of the Communist International’s policy concerning insurrection was a manual commissioned in 1928 (Neuberg 1970), which stated that “armed insurrection is the highest form of political struggle” which, “at a determinate historical stage in the evolution of the class struggle in any given country, is an absolute, an inexorable necessity” (1970: 25, 29). Insurrection was not a narrowly defined military act, but rather was “the organic continuation of [the class] struggle” (44) which “must coincide with the high point of proletarian action” (52):

It is not the military actions of an armed vanguard which can and must arouse the active struggle of the masses for power, it is rather the mighty revolutionary impetus of the working masses which should provoke the military actions of the vanguard detachments. The latter should move into action (according to a plan which has been properly worked out in advance in every respect) as a result of the revolutionary impetus of the masses. Whatever role the purely military factor may play in insurrection, it is still, from this point of view, a subordinate role. The mighty revolutionary impetus of the masses must constitute the social base, the social and political backdrop for the bold, audacious, decisive military actions of the advanced detachments of the revolutionary proletariat determined to smash the bourgeois government machine. (79-80; emphasis in original)

The manual provided instruction on military strategy and tactics – how to identify essential combat objectives and the appropriate timing for insurrection, how to build a barricade, how to engage in street fighting, etc. – but at the same time recognized that “the proletariat will very rarely enjoy military superiority over the armed forces of the ruling class before the insurrection begins” (187). For this reason, it was necessary to organize political and ideological work within the military well before the initiation of armed conflict: “the more the subversion of the bourgeois army is advanced, the stronger will the armed forces of the proletariat be, and the easier will be the struggle during the insurrection itself. The reverse is also true” (154). Once the moment of armed combat has arrived, revolutionary forces must strike the first, unexpected blow against the bourgeois army, and thereafter “must display total courage, must be active to the point of rashness, must not allow a single chance of dealing a blow at the enemy to escape them…., must strive to seek out the enemy and finish him off, until he has been utterly annihilated” (215).

The manual articulated an understanding of insurrection that was fully consistent with that developed by Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.2 How this understanding was put into practice, however, reflected a growing move away from its privileged place in the Marxist theory of revolution. The insurrectionary strategy which Lenin and Trotsky organized for the Bolshevik Revolution was embraced by the Comintern at its First Congress in 1919, proclaiming armed insurrection to be “the highest form of revolutionary struggle” (Riddell 1987: 129). While it recognized that insurrection was contingent on a concrete situation and a particular balance of forces, since the timing of insurrection could not be known, it was essential that revolutionary forces begin to organize for such an event in advance. The initial optimism following the Bolshevik Revolution that proletarian insurrection would sweep the West, though, began to give way by the Third (1921) and Fourth (1922) Congresses to a more subdued recognition of the protracted nature of revolutionary struggle (Carr 1966b). This was the context for Lenin and Trotsky’s critique of the ultra-left ‘theory of the offensive’ pushed within the Comintern by Bukharin and Zinoviev. Trotsky’s comments, quoted here in some length, on the failed March 1921 uprising in Germany (see Broué 2006) are particularly instructive:

You are probably aware that there was advanced the so-called theory of the offensive. What is the gist of this theory? Its gist is that we have entered the epoch of the decomposition of capitalist society, in other words, the epoch when the bourgeoisie must be overthrown. How? By the offensive of the working class. In this purely abstract form, it is unquestionably correct. But certain individuals have sought to convert this theoretical capital into corresponding currency of smaller denomination and they have declared that this offensive consists of a successive number of smaller offensives…. Comrades, the analogy between the political struggle of the working class and military operations has been much abused. But up to a certain point one can speak here of similarities. In civil war one of the two contending parties must inescapably emerge as victor; for civil war differs from national war in this, that in the latter case a compromise is possible: one may cede to the enemy a part of the territory, one may pay him an indemnity, conclude some deal with him. But in civil war this is impossible. Here one class or the other class must conquer at all costs. Soviet Russia was surrounded by the counter-revolution, and therefore our strategy had of necessity to consist of a victorious offensive. We were compelled to liberate our periphery from the counter-revolution. But on recalling today the history of our struggle we find that we suffered defeat rather frequently. In military respects we, too, had our March days, speaking in German; and our September days, speaking in Italian. What happens after a partial defeat? There sets in a certain dislocation of the military apparatus, there arises a certain need for a breathing spell, a need for reorientation and for a more precise estimation of the reciprocal forces, a need to offset the losses and to instill into the masses the consciousness of the necessity of a new offensive and a new struggle. Sometimes all this becomes possible only under the conditions of a strategic retreat…. A retreat is a movement. Whether one takes ten steps forward or ten steps backward depends entirely on the requirements of the moment. For victory it is sometimes necessary to move forward, sometimes to move backward.

But to understand this properly, to discern in a move backwards, in a retreat, a component part of a unified strategic plan – for that a certain experience is necessary. But if one reasons purely abstractly, and insists always on moving forward, if one refuses to rack his brain over strategy, on the assumption that everything can be superseded by an added exertion of revolutionary will, what results does one then get? (Trotsky 1973: 355-356)

The March uprising served as confirmation of everything that Lenin and Trotsky had written about insurrection; in the absence of mass support, without winning over the unions and the military to an uprising, proletarian insurrection was doomed to failure. “Only a traitor,” Trotsky argued, “could deny the need of a revolutionary offensive; but only a simpleton would reduce all of revolutionary strategy to an offensive” (Trotsky 1974: 29).

In light of the conditions and the balance of forces reflected in the defeat of March 1921, the Third Congress argued that a defensive strategy was necessary to protect the working class from renewed attacks by the bourgeoisie. This did not negate the importance of preparing for revolution. Indeed, it made such preparations all the more important, as it could not be predicted easily when the shift from defense to offense was going to occur:

The character of the transition period makes it imperative that every Communist Party does all it can to prepare for military combat. Any confrontation may turn into a struggle for power…. In the period of the world revolution the Communist Party is essentially a party on the offensive, a party at war with capitalist society. It must extend and intensify every defensive struggle, transforming it into an attack on capitalist society. It must make every effort, whenever the conditions are right, to draw the working masses into this campaign. To reject in principle this policy of taking the offensive means to abandon the basic tenets of Communism (Adler 1980: 288-289).

The Communist International thus did not abandon its understanding of the present period as an epoch of world revolution, but instead called for a retreat to the strategic defensive in order to buy time until material conditions swung the other way, at which point revolutionary forces could resume their offensive against capital. This shift from revolutionary offensive to a strategic defensive was made more concrete by the Fourth Congress in 1922 which, with its policy of the united front, emphasized working with the broadest range of political forces to achieve the immediate demands of the working class; these struggles were seen as “a source of revolutionary education, for it is the experiences of struggle that will convince working people of the inevitability of revolution and the significance of communism” (Riddell 2012: 1158). It is clear from these statements that what was most significant in Comintern thinking about insurrection was not its narrowly-defined military aspect but its broader political one. An insurrection is not a putsch or a conspiracy, but emerges out of a mass movement organized in the soviets, the unions, and the military. The initial enthusiasm for a revolutionary offensive expressed by the First and Second Congresses was replaced by a more sober yet ‘active’ defensive position when it became apparent that the existing level of mass mobilization could not support a successful insurrection.

This reaffirmation of the Marxist theory of insurrection was undermined, however, by the internal political conflicts which characterized the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and, by implication, the Comintern following Lenin’s death in 1924. Thereafter, Comintern statements on insurrection reflected growing inner-party conflict over the nature of socialism: was socialism a world revolutionary phenomenon, or was it possible to have ‘socialism in one country’? With the rise of the triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin within the Soviet party and their efforts to marginalize Trotsky, the concept of ‘socialism in one country’ reflected a sense of the growing stabilization of the Soviet Union which paralleled the stabilization of capitalism noted by the Third and Fourth Congresses of the Comintern. In this context, the strategic defensive in preparation for international proletarian revolution which characterized the Third and Fourth Congresses gave way, by the Fifth Congress in 1924, to one defined by the goal of maintaining and strengthening the Soviet Union (Carr 1972). This meant that, rather than preparing to shift from retreat to revolutionary offensive, greater attention was paid to playing off contradictions between capitalist states in order to develop alliances that would prevent the isolation of the Soviet Union. By the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, held in 1928, Trotsky had been defeated and Stalin had emerged as the dominant force within the CPSU. Comintern policy now tacked to the left in order to target the Right led by Bukharin and Zinoviev (Carr 1976). It is in this context that the Sixth Congress proclaimed the beginning of a ‘third period’ defined by the end of capitalist stabilization and a renewal of opportunities for revolutionary upheaval. With social democracy characterized as ‘social fascism’, the united front policy of the Third and Fourth Congresses was put aside. While the ‘third period’ brought insurrection back to the center of Comintern policy, the complex analysis of Engels, Lenin and Trotsky was all but ignored in the disastrous Comintern-inspired insurrections associated with this period.3

By the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935, following the rise of fascism in Germany, the pendulum had swung back again toward an overriding concern with the defense of the Soviet Union (Carr 1982). The ‘People’s Front,’ in which communists in capitalist countries established alliances not only with social democrats (now no longer ‘social fascists’) but also with the liberal bourgeoisie in defense against fascism, was very different from the United front of the Third and Fourth Congresses. While the United Front emphasized working-class organization and struggle, although in the context of a strategic defensive in response to capital’s resurgence after the First World War, the People’s Front downplayed this so as not to frighten off the liberal bourgeoisie. Germany, Poland and Japan were identified as the major threats to the Soviet Union, and while the Comintern called for, in the event of another world war, “the transformation of the imperialist war into civil war against the fascist instigators of war, against the bourgeoisie, for the overthrow of capitalism” (Degras 1964: 378), it was clear that the possibility of civil war was not directed at the bourgeoisie in those countries allied with the Soviet Union against fascism; this is most clearly illustrated by the reining in of the more radical forces within the French Popular Front and the strangling of the social revolution in Spain that was triggered by the Spanish Civil War (Carr 1982, 1984; Claudín 1975). With the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, the insurrectionary tradition that began with Marx and Engels and developed more fully with Lenin and Trotsky came to an end. In the words of C.L.R. James, the revolution had been “abandoned” (James 1993: 373).

Conclusion: Gramsci and Insurrection

The distinction ‘Leninist versus Gramscian strategy’ does an injustice to the hegemonic foundations of insurrection as expressed by Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, who argued consistently that the military and the political-cultural dimensions of coercion and consent are inseparable. Engels, writing about Germany in the 1890s, in some ways anticipated Gramsci’s argument about the strategic significance of dissolving hegemonic consensus, but there was no doubt in Engels’ mind that this was in preparation for the ‘decisive’ moment of proletarian insurrection. The failed March 1921 uprising in Germany served as a negative example. However, it is clear from Lenin’s and Trotsky’s writing that the same process was relevant for revolutionary Russia – that is, the ‘East.’ They rejected the idea that revolution could develop according to the Party’s timetable, arguing instead that insurrection could succeed only after the workers and peasants were convinced of the necessity of revolution. In other words, insurrection was possible only with the masses’ consent.

This belies the image of the Bolshevik Revolution as a form of Blanquist adventurism by an elite political vanguard. It is important to recall just how much opposition Lenin found within his own party to his argument, upon returning to Russia from exile in April 1917, that the next task for the workers’ movement was the revolutionary seizure of power. Even after the Bolshevik leadership finally approved a resolution in favor of insurrection on October 10, many in the Party leadership were quite cautious about the possibilities for success. The Party leadership subsequently passed a resolution calling for the creation of a Military Revolutionary Center (with Stalin as one of five members) to become part of the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee, but this group never became operational. Instead, the Party’s role in the revolution was exercised more through Bolshevik leadership in the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (particularly its Military Revolutionary Committee) and the Red Guards than through the Party directly (Anweiler 1974; Rabinowitch 1976; Wade 1984). While Lenin was responsible for “the higher strategy of the revolution,” the organization of the insurrection itself was the responsibility of non-party formations (Carr 1966a: 109). It was not until years later that the official histories of the Communist Party and the October Revolution identified the Party’s (non-functioning) Military Revolutionary Center, with Stalin at the helm, as “the leading core of the Revolutionary Military Committee of the Petrograd Soviet [with] practical direction of the whole uprising” (CPSU(b) 1939: 206).4 The History of the Civil War in the U.S.S.R., of which Stalin was listed as an editor, declared that “[n]o insurrection in history was carried out with such organization, coordination and careful preparation as the October Socialist Revolution was carried out” and that “[t]he general plan, communications, codes, protection of the rear, slogans, etc. were all fully and precisely formulated by the Central Committee” (Gorky et al. 1946: 298). It is therefore ironic that the sense of ‘Leninism’ to which Gramsci is counterposed is not that associated with Lenin’s political practice but that which emerged as such a powerful weapon in the leadership struggles, ultimately won by Stalin, that characterized the Communist Party after Lenin’s death – the picture of violent revolution organized by a highly centralized and disciplined political party.

Gramsci’s work is best understood as an elaboration and extension of the dialectic of consent and coercion found within the classical Marxist theory of revolution. For Gramsci, the distinctions between war of position and war of maneuver, hegemony and dictatorship, are “merely methodological” (Gramsci 1971: 160); within a concrete social formation, they are best seen as dialectical moments of the same revolutionary process (Buci-Glucksmann 1980; Hoffman 1984; Thomas 2010). On the basis of this dialectic, Gramsci saw it as the responsibility of the communist movement to navigate between the destructive extremes of adventurism and opportunism. Gramsci’s support for the policy of the united front as articulated by Lenin and Trotsky, a united front defined as a strategic defensive in which to prepare for the shift back to the offensive when the revolutionary tide turned in favor of the world proletariat, was a rebuke to those like Bukharin in Russia and Bordiga in Italy who argued for the ‘theory of the offensive’ based on the success of the October Revolution. But it was also, and this in spite of Gramsci’s declared opposition to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, a rebuke to the opportunistic understanding of insurrection associated with Stalin’s theory of socialism in one country, in which insurrection became more and more an instrument of Soviet foreign policy to be encouraged or discouraged depending on the immediate needs of the Soviet Union.5 At the same time, Gramsci’s criticism of Trotsky as the theorist of the offensive – or, in Gramsci’s term, maneuver – was an oblique attack on the ‘third period’ policies which were official Comintern doctrine through most of Gramsci’s imprisonment (Coutinho 2012; Saccarelli 2008; Spriano 1979). The creation of a proletarian counter-hegemony is ‘decisive’ in establishing the legitimacy of revolutionary force, which in turn is simultaneously the condition for concretizing this counter-hegemony in a new revolutionary society. This dialectic is also important for understanding the significance Gramsci places on the role of the party – ‘the Modern Prince’ – in revolution. For Gramsci, the party can construct a revolutionary class consciousness (a ‘national-popular collective will’) and lead the subordinate classes in revolution only if connected organically to the self-activity of those classes and organized on principles of democratic centralism. That is, for Gramsci the dialectic of consent and coercion is just as relevant within the party as it is in the party’s political strategy. When this dialectic is denied the result is not only adventurism or opportunism but also ‘bureaucratic centralism.’ The counterposition of a Gramscian model of revolution to a putatively Leninist one overlooks the symmetry between the theory and practice of the party under Lenin (Le Blanc 1993; Liebman 1980; Lih 2008) and that of Gramsci.

There are important consequences for contemporary left movements which flow from the one-dimensional interpretation of Leninist strategy that is often associated with the Gramscian perspective. To the extent that maneuver and position are defined narrowly, there is a failure to recognize the moments of force that are inherent in a hegemonic strategy and the moments of consent that are inherent in an insurrectionary strategy. Left strategy must think of maneuver and position as occurring simultaneously rather than sequentially. In addition, since the ruling class is also engaged in a war of position, a narrow definition of maneuver and position undervalues the relevance of coercion in the reproduction of ruling-class power as well as how coercion simultaneously shapes and is shaped by hegemony. Such an underestimation of the complexity of ruling-class power ensures the defeat of subordinate classes in their efforts to achieve social transformation.


Adamson, Walter L. 1980. Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Adler, Alan (ed.). 1980. “On Tactics.” Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International. London: Ink Links.

Anweiler, Oskar. 1974. The Soviets: The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils 1905-1921.

Boggs, Carl. 1976. Gramsci’s Marxism. London: Pluto Press.

Broué, Pierre. 2006. The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Buci-Glucksmann, Christine. 1980. Gramsci and the State. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Carr, E.H. 1966a. The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923. Volume One. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

_____. 1966b. The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923. Volume Three. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

_____. 1972. Socialism in One Country 1924-1926. Volume Three. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

_____. 1976. Foundations of a Planned Economy 1926-1929. Volume Three-I. London: Macmillan.

_____. 1978. Foundations of a Planned Economy 1926-1929. Volume Three-III. London: Macmillan.

_____. 1982. Twilight of the Comintern 1930-1935. New York: Pantheon.

_____. 1984. The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War. New York: Pantheon.

Claudín, Fernando. 1975. The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform. Part One. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Coutinho, Carlos Nelson. 2013. Gramsci’s Political Thought. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

CPSU(b). 1939. History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). New York: International Publishers.

Degras, Jane (ed.). 1964. “Extracts from a Resolution of the Seventh Comintern Congress on the Danger of a New World War.” The Communist International, 1919-1943: Documents. Volume II. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Draper, Hal and Haberkern E. 2005. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Volume 5 – War and Revolution. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Engels, Frederick. 1922. The Revolutionary Act: Military Insurrection of Political and Economic Action. New York: New York Labor News.

_____. 1939. Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. New York: International Publishers.

_____. 1969. Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution. New York: International Publishers.

_____. 1975. “Conditions and Prospects of a War of the Holy Alliance Against France in 1852.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 10. New York: International Publishers, 542-566.

Femia, Joseph V. 1987. Gramsci’s Political Thought: Hegemony, Consciousness, and the Revolutionary Process. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gorky, M., V. Molotov, K. Voroshilov, S. Kirov, A. Zhdanov, and J. Stalin (eds.). 1946. The History of the Civil War in the U.S.S.R. Volume Two: The Great Proletarian Revolution. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.

Harman, Chris. 1977a. “Gramsci Versus Eurocommunism.” International Socialism 98: 23-26.

_____. 1977b. “Antonio Gramsci, Part 2.” International Socialism 99: 10-14.

Issacs, Harold R. 2009. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Hoffman, John. 1984. The Gramscian Challenge: Coercion and Consent in Marxist Political Theory. New York: Basil Blackwell.

James, C.L.R. 1993. World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. New York: Verso.

Le Blanc, Paul. 1993. Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Lenin, V.I. 1930. The War and the Second International. New York: International Publishers.

_____. 1932. Letters from Afar. New York: International Publishers.

_____. 1934. The Revolution of 1905. New York: International Publishers.

_____. 1961. “Where to Begin?” Collected Works, Volume 5. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 13-24.

_____. 1964a. “Advice of an Onlooker.” Collected Works, Volume 26. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 179-181.

_____. 1964b. “Marxism and Insurrection.” Collected Works, Volume 26. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 22-27.

_____. 1964c. “Letter to Comrades.” Collected Works, Volume 26. Moscow: Progress Publishers,

_____. 1965a. “The Revolutionary Army and the Revolutionary Government.” Collected Works, Volume 8. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 560-568.

_____. 1965b. “Lessons of the Moscow Uprising.” Collected Works, Volume 11. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 171-178.

_____. 1965c. “Guerrilla Warfare.” Collected Works, Volume 11. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 213-223.

_____. 1965d.”The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Collected Works, Volume 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 253-275.

_____. 1969. What Is To Be Done? New York: International Publishers.

_____. 1972. “A Tactical Platform for the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.” Collected Works, Volume 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 147-163.

_____. 1977. “Two Tactics.” Collected Works, Volume 8. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 148-157.

Liebman, Marcel. 1980. Leninism Under Lenin. London: Merlin Press.

Lih, Lars T. 2008. Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Marx, Karl. 1964. Class Struggles in France 1848-1850. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 1982a. “Engels to Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart.” Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

_____. 1982b. “Engels to Paul Lafargue  in Paris.” Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Neuberg, A. 1970. Armed Insurrection. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Rabinowitch, Alexander. 1968. Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

_____. 1976. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. New York: W.W. Norton.

Riddell, John (ed.). 1987. “Report on the Platform.” Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919.  New York: Pathfinder Press.

_____. 1991. “Statutes.” Workers of the World and Oppressed People, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920. New York: Pathfinder Press.

_____. 2012. “On the Tactics of the Comintern.” Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922.  New York: Pathfinder Press.

Saccarelli, Emanuele. 2008. Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism: The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition. New York: Routledge.

Sobolev, P.N. 1977. The Great October Socialist Revolution. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Spriano, Paolo. 1979. Antonio Gramsci and the Party: The Prison Years. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Thomas, Peter D. 2010. The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Trotsky, Leon. 1971a. 1905. New York: Vintage Books.

_____. 1971b. “Marxism and Military Warfare.” Military Writings. New York: Pathfinder Press.

_____. 1973. “Report on ‘The Balance Sheet’ of the Third Congress of the Communist International.” The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume One. London: New Park Publications.

_____. 1974. “A School of Revolutionary Strategy.”  The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume Two. London: New Park Publications.

_____. 1979. “The Military Academy.” How The Revolution Armed: The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, Volume 1: 1918. London: New Park Publications, 211-219.

_____. 1980a. The History of the Russian Revolution. Volume I. New York: Pathfinder Press.

_____. 1980b. The History of the Russian Revolution. Volume III. New York: Pathfinder Press.

Wade, Rex A. 1984. Red Guards and Workers’ Militias in the Russian Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Notes 1. Coutinho (2013) makes a similar association between conjunctural crises/war of maneuver and organic crises/war of position.

2. By this time, the contributions of Trotsky, who had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1927 and sent into internal exile in 1928, had been erased from Soviet history.

3. See, for example, Issacs’ (2009) and Carr’s (1978) analyses of Comintern policy in China.

4. Decades later, Soviet histories of the October Revolution continued to identify the Military Revolutionary Center as “the backbone of the [Petrograd Soviet’s] Revolutionary Military Committee” (Sobolev 1977: 148).

5. It is Gramsci’s recognition of the dialectic of force and consent that rendered subsequent efforts to invoke his thought as a foundation for Eurocommunism so problematic (Harman 1977a, 1977b).