Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci 1917

Notes on the Russian Revolution

Initialled A. G., Il Grido del Popolo, 29 April 1917. This article was Gramsci’s first comment on the events of the “February Revolution” that overthrew the Tsarist autocracy.

Why is the Russian revolution a proletarian revolution?

Reading the papers, reading the confusing despatches that the censorship has passed for publication, one is hard put to it to know why. We know the revolution was carried out by proletarians (workers and soldiers) and we know of the existence of a committee of worker delegates overseeing the functioning of the administrative organs which have had to be maintained to see to everyday affairs. But is it enough that a revolution be carried out by proletarians for it to be a proletarian revolution? War too is made by proletarians, but it is not, for this reason alone, a proletarian event. For it to be so, other, spiritual, factors must be present. There must be more to the revolution than the question of power: there must be the question of morality, of a way of life. The bourgeois newspapers have emphasized the aspect of power. They have told us how the power of the autocracy came to be replaced by another power, which is not yet clearly defined but which they hope is a bourgeois power. And at once they have set up the parallel: Russian Revolution, French Revolution and found the events to be similar. But the events resemble each other only on the surface, just as one act of violence resembles another act of violence, and one destruction resembles another.

We, however, are convinced that the Russian revolution is more than simply a proletarian event, it is a proletarian act, which must naturally lead to a socialist regime. The small amount of really concrete, substantial news does not allow exhaustive proof of this. However, certain facts are available to support such a conclusion.

The Russian revolution has been innocent of Jacobinism. The revolution had to smash the autocracy - but it did not have to crush the majority of the people by the use of violence. Jacobinism is a purely bourgeois phenomenon: it characterizes the French bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie, after carrying out the revolution, had no universal programme. It carried it out to further its own, particularist class interests, and did so with the closed and mean mentality common to all people who pursue particularist ends. The violence of the bourgeois revolutions has a twofold character: it destroys the old order, and imposes the new. The bourgeoisie imposes its power and its ideas not only on the previously dominant caste, but also on the people it will in future dominate. It is one authoritarian regime replacing another authoritarian regime.

The Russian revolution has destroyed authoritarianism and replaced it by universal suffrage, extending the vote to women too. It has replaced authoritarianism by liberty, the Constitution by the free voice of universal consciousness. Why are the Russian revolutionaries not Jacobins - in other words, why have not they too replaced the dictatorship of one man by the dictatorship of an audacious minority ready to do anything that will ensure its programme’s victory? It is because they are pursuing aims which are common to the vast majority of the population. They are certain that when the whole of the Russian proletariat is asked to make its choice, the reply cannot be in doubt. It is in everyone’s mind, and will be transformed into an irrevocable decision just as soon as it can be expressed in an atmosphere of absolute spiritual freedom, without the voting being perverted by police interventions and by the threat of the gallows or exile. Even culturally the industrial proletariat is ready for the transition; and the agricultural proletariat too, which is familiar with the traditional forms of communal communism, is prepared for the change to a new form of society. Socialist revolutionaries cannot be Jacobins: in Russia at the moment all they have to do is ensure that the bourgeois organs (the duma, the zemstvas) do not indulge in Jacobinism, in order to secure an ambiguous response from universal suffrage and turn violence to their own ends.

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The bourgeois newspapers have attached no importance to another intriguing event. The Russian revolutionaries have not only freed political prisoners, but common criminals as well. When the common criminals in one prison were told they were free, they replied that they felt they did not have the right to accept liberty because they had to expiate their crimes. In Odessa they gathered in the prison courtyard and of their own volition swore to become honest men and resolved to live by their own labours. From the point of view of the socialist revolution, this news has more importance even than that of the dismissal of the Tsar and the grand-dukes. The Tsar would have been deposed by bourgeois revolutionaries as well. But in bourgeois eyes, these condemned men would still have been the enemies of their order, the stealthy appropriators of their wealth and their tranquillity. In our eyes their liberation has this significance: what the revolution has created in Russia is a new way of life. It has not only replaced one power by another, it has replaced one way of life by another. It has created a new moral order, and in addition to the physical liberty of the individual, has established liberty of the mind. The revolutionaries were not afraid to send back into circulation men whom bourgeois justice had stamped with the infamous brand “previous offender”, men whom bourgeois justice had catalogued into various types of criminal delinquent. Only in an atmosphere of social turbulence could such an event occur, when the way of life and the prevailing mentality is changed. Liberty makes men free and widens their moral horizons; it turns the worst criminal under an authoritarian regime into a martyr for the cause of duty, a hero in the cause of honesty. It says in a report that in one prison these criminals rejected liberty and elected themselves wardens. Why had they never done such a thing before? Because their prison was ringed by massive walls and their windows were barred? The men who went to free them must have looked very different from the tribunal judges and the prison warders, and these common criminals must have heard words very different from the ones they were used to, for their consciousness to be transformed in this way, for them to become suddenly so free as to be able to prefer segregation to liberty and to voluntarily impose an expiation on themselves. They must have felt the world had changed, that they too, the dregs of society, now counted for something; that they too, the segregated, had the freedom to choose.

This is the most majestic phenomenon that human history has ever produced. As a result of the Russian revolution the man who was a common criminal has turned into the sort of man whom Immanuel Kant, the theoretician of absolute ethical conduct, had called for - the sort of man who says: the immensity of the heavens above me, the imperative of my conscience within me. What these brief news items reveal to us is a liberation of spirit, the establishment of a new moral awareness. It is the advent of a new order, one that coincides with everything our masters taught us. And once again it is from the East that light comes to illuminate the aged Western world, which is stupefied by the events and can oppose them with nothing but the banalities and stupidities of its hack-writers.