Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci 1924

Democracy and fascism

Unsigned, L'Ordine Nuovo, 1 November 1924.

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.

In what sense should one say that fascism and democracy are two aspects of a single reality, two different forms of a single activity: the activity which the bourgeois class carries out to halt the proletarian class on its path? The assertion of this truth is contained in the theses of the Communist International, but only in Italy does the history of the last few years gives an unambiguous proof of it. In Italy, in the last few years, there has been a perfect division of labour between fascism and democracy.

It became clear after the War that it was impossible for the Italian bourgeoisie to go on ruling with a democratic system. Yet before the War, Italian democracy had already been a fairly singular system. It was a system which knew neither economic freedom nor substantial political freedoms; which strove through corruption and violence to prevent any free development of new forces, whether they committed themselves in advance to the existing framework of the State or not; and which restricted the ruling class to a minority incapable of maintaining its position without the active assistance of the policeman and the carabiniere. In the Italian democratic system, before the War, each year several dozen workers fell in the streets; and peasants were sent to pick grapes in some places with muzzles on, for fear they might taste the fruit. Democracy, for the peasants and workers, consisted only in the fact that at the base they had the possibility of creating a network of organizations and developing these, strand by strand, to the point where they included the majority of decisive elements of the working class. Even this very simple fact implied a death-sentence for the democratic system. The post-war crisis made it explicit.

The existence and development of a class organization of the workers create a state of affairs which cannot be remedied, either through the State violence which every democratic order permits itself, or with a systematic use of the method of political corruption of leaders. This could be seen in Italy after the first elections held under universal suffrage and with proportional representation. 117 After these, the democratic bourgeoisie felt impotent to solve the problem of how to prevent power slipping from its grasp. Despite the wishes of the leaders, and notwithstanding the absence of conscious guidance, the workers' movement could not fail to advance and achieve decisive developments.

The handclasps for Filippo Turati, the winks at D'Aragona, and the favours done on the sly for the mandarins of the cooperative movement, were no longer sufficient to contain a movement which was impelled by the pressure of millions of men integrated, in however illogical and elementary a manner, in an organization: millions of men moved by the stimulus of elementary needs which had increased and been left unsatisfied. At this juncture, those democrats who wanted to remain consistent posed themselves the problem of how to "make the masses loyal to the State". An insoluble problem, so long as there did not exist a State for which the masses would be flesh and blood; a State which had emerged from the masses through an organic process of creation, and which was bound to them. In reality, at this juncture democracy understood that it must draw aside, leaving the field to a different force. Fascism's hour had come.

What service has fascism performed for the bourgeois class and for "democracy"? It set out to destroy even that minimum to which the democratic system was reduced in Italy - i.e. the concrete possibility to create an organizational link at the base between the workers, and to extend this link gradually until it embraced the great masses in movement. It set out too to annihilate the results already achieved in this field. Fascism has accomplished both these aims, by means of an activity perfectly designed for the purpose. Fascism has never manoeuvred, as the reactionary State might have done in 1919 and 1920, when faced with a massive movement in the streets. Rather, it waited to move until working-class organization had entered a period of passivity and then fell upon it, striking it as such, not for what it "did" but for what it "was" - in other words, as the source of links capable of giving the masses a form and physiognomy. The strength and capacity for struggle of the workers for the most part derive from the existence of these links, even if they are not in themselves apparent. What is involved is the possibility of meeting; of discussing; of giving these meetings and discussions some regularity; of choosing leaders through them; of laying the basis for an elementary organic formation, a league, a cooperative or a party section. What is involved is the possibility of giving these organic formations a continuous functionality; of making them into the basic framework for an organized movement. Fascism has systematically worked to destroy these possibilities.

Its most effective activity has, therefore, been that carried on in the localities; at the base of the organizational edifice of the working class; in the provinces, rural centres, workshops and factories. The sacking of subversive workers; the exiling or assassination of workers' and peasants' "leaders"; the ban on meetings; the prohibition on staying outdoors after working hours; the obstacle thus placed in the way of any "social" activity on the part of the workers; and then the destruction of the Chambers of Labour and all other centres of organic unity of the working class and peasantry, and the terror disseminated among the masses - all this had more value than a political struggle through which the working class was stripped of the "rights" which the Constitution guarantees on paper. After three years of this kind of action, the working class has lost all form and all organicity; it has been reduced to a disconnected, fragmented, scattered mass. With no substantial transformation of the Constitution, the political conditions of the country have been changed most profoundly, because the strength of the workers and peasants has been rendered quite ineffective.

When the working class is reduced to such conditions, the political situation is "democratic". In such conditions, in fact, so-called liberal bourgeois groups can, without fear of fatal repercussions on the internal cohesion of State and society: 1. separate their responsibilities from those of the fascism which they armed, encouraged and incited to struggle against the workers; 2, restore "the rule of law". i.e. a state of affairs in which the possibility for a workers' organization to exist is not denied. They can do the first of these two things because the workers, dispersed and disorganized, are not in any position to insert their strength into the bourgeois contradiction deeply enough to transform it into a general crisis of society, prelude to revolution. The second thing is possible for them because fascism has created the conditions for it, by destroying the results of thirty years' organizational work. The freedom to organize is only conceded to the workers by the bourgeois when they are certain that the workers have been reduced to a point where they can no longer make use of it, except to resume elementary organizing work - work which they hope will not have political consequences other than in the very long term.

In short, "democracy" organized fascism when it felt it could no longer resist the pressure of the working class in conditions even of only formal freedom. Fascism, by shattering the working class, has restored to "democracy" the possibility of existing. In the intentions of the bourgeoisie, the division of labour should operate perfectly: the alternation of fascism and democracy should serve to exclude for ever any possibility of working-class resurgence. But not only the bourgeois see things in this way. The same point of view is shared by the reformists, by the maximalists, by all those who say that present conditions for the workers of Italy are analogous to those of thirty years ago, those of 1890 and before, when the working-class movement was taking its first steps among us. By all those who believe that the resurgence should take place with the same slogans and in the same forms as at that time. By all those, therefore, who view the conflict between "democratic" bourgeoisie and fascism in the same way that they then viewed the conflicts between radical and conservative bourgeois. By all those who speak of "constitutional freedoms" or of "freedom of work" in the same way that one could speak of these at the outset of the workers' movement.

To adopt this point of view means to weld the working class inexorably within the vicious circle in which the bourgeoisie wishes to confine it. To hear the reformists, the workers and peasants of Italy today have nothing more to hope for than that the bourgeoisie should itself give them back the freedom to reconstruct their organization and make it live; the freedom to re-establish trade unions, peasant leagues, party sections, Chambers of Labour, and then federations, cooperatives, labour exchanges, worker-control offices, committees designed to limit the boss's freedom inside the factory, and so on and so forth - until the pressure of the masses reawoken by the organizations, and that of the organizations themselves, to transcend the boundaries of bourgeois society becomes so strong that "democracy" can neither resist it nor tolerate it, and will once again arm an army of blackshirts to destroy the menace.

How is the vicious circle to be broken? Solving this problem means solving, in practice, the problem of revolution. There is only one way: to succeed in reorganizing the great mass of workers during the very development of the bourgeois political crisis, and not by concession of the bourgeois, but through the initiative of a revolutionary minority and around the latter. The Communist Party, from the day in which the fascist régime went into crisis, has not set itself any other task than this. Is it a task of an "organizational" nature in the narrow sense of the word, or is it a "political" task? What we have said above serves to show that only insofar as the Communist Party succeeds in solving it will it succeed in modifying the terms of the real situation. "Reorganizing"the working class, in this case, means in practice creating" a new force and causing it to intervene on the political scene: a force which today is not being taken into account, as if it no longer existed. Organization and politics are thus converted one into the other.

The work of the Communist Party is facilitated by two fundamental conditions. I - By the fact that the shattering of the working class by fascism has left the Communist Party itself surviving, as the organized fraction of the class; as the organization of a revolutionary minority and of the cadres of a great mass party. The whole value of the line followed by the communists in the first years of the party consists in this, as does the value of the activity of purely technical organization carried on for a year after the coup d'état. 2. By the fact that the alternation from fascism to democracy and from democracy to fascism is not a process abstracted from other economic and political facts, but takes place simultaneously with the extension and intensification of the general crisis of the capitalist economy, and of the relations of force built upon it. There thus exists a powerful objective stimulus towards the return of the masses to the field, for the class struggle. Neither of these conditions exists for the other so-called workers' parties. They in fact all agree, not just in denying the value of conscious party organization, but in accepting the bourgeois thesis of the progressive stabilization of the capitalist economy after the wartime crisis.

But the political function of the Communist Party is revealed and develops with greater clarity and more effectively because of the fact that it alone is capable of calling for the creation of an organization which, transcending at one and the same time the limits of narrowly party organization and of trade-union organization, realizes the unity of the working class on a vaster terrain: that of preparation for a political struggle in which the class returns to the field arrayed for battle autonomously, both against the fascist bourgeois and against the democratic and liberal bourgeois. This organization is provided by the "workers' and peasants' committees" for the struggle against fascism.

To find in the history of the Italian movement an analogy with the workers' and peasants' committees", it is necessary to go back to the factory councils of 1919 and 1920 and to the movement which emerged from them. In the factory council, the problem of the class's unity, and that of its revolutionary activity to overthrow the bourgeois order, were considered and resolved simultaneously. The factory council realized the organizational unity of all workers, and at the same time carried the class struggle to an intensity such as to make the supreme clash inevitable. Not only the fable of collaboration and the utopia of social peace, but also the foolish legend of an organization developing with bourgeois permission inside capitalist society until it transcends the latter's limits and empties it gradually of its content, found a total negation in the factory council. Working-class unity was achieved on the terrain of revolution, breaking the economic and political organization of capitalist society from below.

To what extent can the revolutionary function once fulfilled by the factory councils be carried out today by the workers' and peasants' committees? L'Ordine Nuovo, which in the first period of its existence devoted itself in particular to developing theses relating to the councils movement and to encouraging the spontaneous creation and the development of these organisms, is now basing its propaganda and agitational work on this other problem, to which the Communist Party is devoting itself today. The continuity between the two, whatever the points of similarity and difference between councils and committees may be, lies in the effort to induce the resurgent movement of the broad masses to express itself in an organic form, and to find in it the germs of the new order of things which we want to create. The odious alternation and the base division of labour between fascism and democracy will come to an end only insofar as this effort produces a result.