Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci 1921

Masses and leaders


Unsigned, L'Ordine Nuovo, 30 October 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 struggle which the Communist Party has launched to form a tradeunion united front against the capitalist offensive has had the merit of creating a united front of all the trade-union mandarins. Against the "dictatorship" of the Communist Party and the Moscow Executive, Armando Borghi finds himself in agreement with Ludovico D'Aragona, Errico Malatesta finds himself in agreement with Giacinto Menotti Serrati, Sbrana and Castrucci find themselves in agreement with Guarnieri and Colombino. This does not surprise us communists at all. The worker comrades who followed the campaign waged for the Factory Council movement in the weekly Ordine Nuovo no doubt remember how we foresaw that this phenomenon would appear in Italy too. For it had already appeared in other countries and could therefore already be seen as universal - as one of the most characteristic features of the present historical period.

Trade-union organization, whether it had a reformist, anarchist or syndicalist label, had brought about the emergence of a whole hierarchy of lesser and greater leaders, whose best-known characteristics were vanity, a mania for wielding uncontrolled power, incompetence and unrestrained demagogy. The most ridiculous and absurd role in this whole comedy was that played by the anarchists. The more they shrieked at authoritarianism, the more authoritarian they were. The more they howled about wanting freedom, autonomy and spontaneous initiative, the more they sacrificed the real will of the broad masses and the spontaneous flowering of their libertarian tendencies. Especially in Italy, the union movement fell low and became a fairground hubbub: everyone wanted to create his own "movement", his own 11 organization", his own "real union" of workers. Borghi represented one registered trade-mark, De Ambris another registered trade-mark, D'Aragona a third, Sbrana and Castrucci a fourth and Captain Giulietti a fifth. All these people, naturally, showed themselves hostile to the interference of political parties in the trade-union movement, asserting that the union is self-sufficient: that the union is the "true" nucleus of the future society; that in the union are to be found the structural elements of the new economic and political order of the proletariat.

In the weekly Ordine Nuovo, without parti pris and with a libertarian method, i.e. without letting ourselves be diverted by ideological preconceptions (hence with a Marxist method, given that Marx is the greatest libertarian to have appeared in the history of the human race), we examined what the real nature and structure of the trade union are. We began by showing that it is absurd and puerile to maintain that the trade union in itself possesses the capability to overthrow capitalism. Objectively, the trade union is nothing other than a commercial company, of a purely capitalistic type, which aims to secure, in the interests of the proletariat, the maximum price for the commodity labour, and to establish a monopoly over this commodity in the national and international fields. The trade union is distinguished from capitalist mercantilism only subjectively, insofar as, being formed necessarily of workers, it tends to create among the workers an awareness that it is impossible to achieve industrial autonomy of the producers within the bounds of trade-unionism; an awareness that for this it is necessary to take over the State (i.e. deprive the bourgeoisie of State power) and utilize its power to reorganize the entire apparatus of production and exchange.

We then showed that the trade union cannot be, or become, the basic cell of the future society of producers. The trade union, in fact, appears in two forms: the general assembly and the leading bureaucracy. The general assembly is never called upon to discuss and deliberate upon problems of production and exchange, or upon technical industrial problems. It is normally convened to discuss and decide upon the relations between entrepreneurs and labour-force, i.e. on problems which are specific to capitalist society and which will be transformed fundamentally by the proletarian revolution. Nor does the selection of trade-union officials take place upon the terrain of industrial technique. A metalworking trade union does not ask a would-be official if he is competent in the metal-working industry, or whether he is capable of administering the metal-working industry of a city, a region, or the entire country. It simply asks him if he is capable of arguing the workers' case in a dispute, if he is capable of drawing up a report and if he is capable of addressing a meeting.

The French syndicalists of Vie Ouvrière tried before the War to create industrial skills among tradeunion officials. They promoted a whole series of research-studies and publications on the technical organization of production. (For example: how does it come about that hide from a Chinese ox becomes the shoe of a Paris cocotte? What route does this hide follow? How is the transport of this commodity organized? What are the costs of transport? How does the manufacture of international "taste" operate, so far as leather goods are concerned? etc.) But this attempt sank without trace. The trade-union movement, as it has expanded, has created a body of officials who are completely detached from the individual industries, and who obey purely commercial laws. A metal-workers' official can pass on indifferently to the bricklayers, the bootmakers or the joiners. He is not obliged to know the real technical conditions of the industry, just the private legislation which regulates the relations between entrepreneurs and labour force.

One may assert, without fear of being contradicted by any experimental demonstration, that the theory of syndicalism has now been revealed as an ingenious castle in the air constructed by politicians who only hated politics because, before the War, politics meant nothing except parliamentary activity and reformist compromise.

The trade-union movement is nothing but a political movement, the union leaders are nothing but political leaders who reach the posts they fill by appointment rather than by democratic election. In many respects a union leader represents a social type similar to the banker. An experienced banker, who has a good business head and is able to foresee with some accuracy the movement of stocks and bonds, wins credit for his institution and attracts depositors and investors. A trade-union leader who can foresee the possible outcome as conflicting social forces clash, attracts the masses into his organization and becomes a banker of men. From this point of view, D'Aragona, insofar as he was backed by the Socialist Party which called itself maximalist, was a better banker than Armando Borghi, distinguished confusionist, a man without character or political direction, a fairground pedlar more than a modern banker.

That the Confederation of Labour is essentially a political movement can be seen from the fact that its greatest expansion coincided with the greatest expansion of the Socialist Party. Its leaders, however, thought that they could ignore party policy, i.e. that they could follow individual policies without the nuisance of controls or disciplinary obligations. This is the reason for that noisy revolt of the union leaders against the "dictatorship" of the Communist Party and the notorious Moscow Executive. The masses instinctively understand that they are powerless to control the leaders or force them to respect the decisions of assemblies and congresses. Therefore, the masses want the trade-union movement to be controlled by a party. They want the union leaders to belong to a well-organized party which has a definite line, which is able to see that its discipline is respected and which will uphold freely contracted commitments.

The "dictatorship" of the Communist Party does not terrify the masses, because the masses understand that this "terrible dictatorship" is the best guarantee of their freedom, the best guarantee against betrayals and intrigues. The united front which the trade-union mandarins of every subversive variety form against the Communist Party shows just one thing: that our party has finally become the party of the broad masses, and that it truly represents the permanent interests of the working class and the peasantry. To the united front of all bourgeois strata against the revolutionary proletariat there corresponds the united front of all union mandarins against the communists. Giolitti, in order to defeat the workers, has made peace with Mussolini and given arms to the fascists. Armando Borghi, in order not to lose his position as the Grand Senusso of revolutionary syndicalism, will reach an agreement with D'Aragona, the High Bonze of parliamentary reformism.

What a lesson for the working class, which must follow not men, but organized parties that can subject individual men to discipline, seriousness and respect for voluntarily contracted commitments!