Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci 1921

Referendum


Unsigned, L'Ordine Nuovo, 29 June 1921.


Text from Antonio Gramsci "Selections from political writings (1921-1926)", translated and edited by Quintin Hoare (Lawrence and Wishart, London 1978). Transcribed to the www with the kind permission of Quintin Hoare.


The working-class trade-union association can function in three ways: by a general assembly of the membership, by "referendum", or by an assembly of shop-floor delegates. Which of these three forms best expresses the conscious will of the mass of union members?

Questions concerning the structure and functioning of working-class trade-union associations aroused no interest and attracted no attention in the period before the imperialist war of 1914-18, because the unions then only organized a tiny part of the working masses. After the Armistice, there was a sudden gigantic growth of the workers' unions. In Turin, for instance, the FIOM section organized between 30 and 35,000 metalworkers, and the problem was at once posed: how could one enable a membership on this scale to participate in the union's internal life? How could one enable it to express its will and exercise its sovereign right of deliberation?

The problem was an extremely important one, vital for the communists. For what is communism in essence? It is the spontaneous, historically determined movement of the broad working masses, who want to free themselves from capitalist oppression and exploitation, and to found a society organized in such a way that it is able to guarantee the autonomous and unlimited development of men without property. The communists thus have every interest in ensuring that the broadest masses take a direct interest in general questions, in political discussion, in administrative and organizational problems. The indifference of the broad masses means the stagnation and death of communism; the interest and enthusiasm of the broad masses means the development and the victory of communism. But how does one go about enabling 30 or 35,000 workers to take part in the life of their union? Even if it were possible to get them all into one hall, would so gigantic an assembly have any deliberative value? It would be a rally, not a deliberative assembly. The speeches would have to be shouted through a megaphone. The proceedings would not even be understood by everybody. All educative utility would be annihilated by the impossibility of serious argument or discussion.

These problems did not interest the trade-union mandarins or the reformists in general - or rather, they interested them negatively. For the reformists, just like the bourgeois, do not want the intervention of the broad masses. Oh yes, they want the broad masses to join unions, to pay dues, to be orderly and obedient. But they fear enthusiasm and a revolutionary spirit like the plague, and always seek to avert any participation in discussion by the popular masses. The tradeunion mandarins have the same mentality as the great war bankers: they see themselves as "bankers of men". The masses for them are a means, an instrument, not an end. They say: we, trade-union mandarins, stand politically for the hundreds of thousands, the millions of workers who are organized in the union federations and the Confederation. Just as a banker overturns a government by manipulating his millions, corrupting and depraving the political personnel of parliament and the bureaucracy, so-we mandarins overturn a government by manipulating the masses organized in the trade unions. But if the workers participate directly in union life; if they want to see clearly in all things; if they want to control; if they want to have all the deliberative power and only leave the administrative, executive, bureaucratic function to the mandarins - how, under these conditions, is it possible to carry on manipulating? The mandarins would no longer be mandarins.

So thus it is that the mandarins seek by every means to prevent the broad masses from participating in discussion. The assemblies are rigged: when a critic speaks, the little groups of reformists resort to systematic heckling; but when a reformist takes the floor, bursts of applause punctuate his speech. The reformists deliver interminable orations, seek to divert attention from the main problems, provoke incidents, etc., etc. When the moment comes for discussion, the assembly has dwindled in size, because many have grown impatient and decamped. Those who have remained feel suffocated, bewildered, stupefied by all the manoeuvres; so the reformists win a maority.

The reformist cliques are so strong and well-organized in some centres, that the communists are denied any possibility of making propaganda. Let us give an example. Once last year, at the invitation of the young socialists, comrade Togliatti went to Milan to give a meeting on the Factory Councils. The young socialists advertised the meeting in Avanti! and notified the Internal Commissions. The reformists put about a rumour in the Internal Commissions that the meeting was postponed for three days. Still not sure of having done enough to sabotage the meeting, they managed to get the municipal council - which they controlled - to interrupt the tram service for two hours on all lines leading to the hall where it was taking place. This is how the Milan reformists took care to prevent the "Turin contagion" from infecting the Milanese proletariat. And what did Giuseppe Bianchi, secretary of the CGL, do at the PSI National Council meeting in Florence? He asked the party leadership to establish a cordon sanitaire around Piedmont, to prevent Factory Council propaganda from spreading which would have endangered the economic and political positions of the mandarins. Had the general assembly then become physically impossible, because of the immense dimensions attained by the unions? What was to be done? Resort to the "referendum"? But the referendum cannot be a normal method of government, it can only be an exceptional method. If one had to have recourse to a referendum for every vote, the unions would cease to function. The communists are also on principle opposed to referendums, since they place the most advanced and active workers, who make the greatest sacrifices, on the same plane as the lazy, ignorant, idle workers. If one wants direct, individual consultation, then this must take place in assemblies, after an organized debate, and the vote must presuppose knowledge of what is at stake and a sense of responsibility. A referendum can only be called for in exceptional circumstances, if one wishes to avoid appearing as saboteurs and disrupters.

The communists worked out the system of workshop delegates, as a reasonable solution to the present organizational problems. The delegates' assembly is an assembly performing the function of a referendum. The delegate is elected by a work squad, imperatively mandated, and instantly recallable. The delegates' assembly thus represents the whole mass of workers, and can be assumed to be made up of the best elements from that mass. Since the mandate is imperative and revocable, it can also be assumed that the delegates' assembly represents the opinion of the mass of workers at all times.

The general membership assembly has the same relation to the delegates' assembly as the gathering of a Roman or Germanic tribe has to a bourgeois parliament. The representative principle was a great step forward in the practice of government, for every class. In Rome, the people or plebs took part in the running of public affairs by gathering together and appointing tribunes. In the Middle Ages, the Germanic tribes too gathered in great assemblies to discuss, beating their lances on the ground. Parliaments replaced these barbaric and irrational forms of popular government. The same thing has occurred in the working-class organizations. When general membership assemblies were called, they were deafened by words, swindled by reformist demagogy, and ruled by the clapping of hands and the raising of arms. The delegates' assembly, embryonic form of the soviet, is the natural form of representation of the working class. It is working-class "parliamentarism", which seeks to abolish monarchic absolutism in the trade unions, just as the national parliament abolished monarchic absolutism in the State. The communists wanted the whole mass of workers to interest themselves in union problems, and at the same time wanted to retain those elements contained in the general assembly that were beneficial from an educative point of view. They succeeded in solving the problem in a historically concrete manner with the system of delegates, which synthesizes the referendum and the general membership assembly.

The reformists, with the offensive they have launched in combination with that of the industrialists, are aiming to wreck the workers' organizations - which today can only live and develop in soviet-type forms. One of the reformists' weapons is the continual demand for referendums. The aim of these is to reduce the masses once more to the conditions of apathy and indifference which characterized the period preceding the imperialist war, and thus to restore the absolute power of the mandarins. The reformists frequently and readily accuse the communists of being ambitious and arriviste. The reply is simple: it may very well be that the communists are ambitious (ambition has always been one of the great forces in history); but at least the "ambitious" communists, as they rise, seek to raise the broad popular masses with them. But you, people who have already "arrived", in order to keep your positions you press the masses down and degrade them. The ambition of the communist, who knows he cannot rise without raising the mass of workers, is a noble thing. Yours, o mandarins, is not even ambition; it is an ignoble imitation of the bourgeois methods whereby one man oppresses another.