Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci 1925

Introduction to the first course of the party school


Signed "Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Communist Party".

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.


Which specific need of the working class and its party, the Communist Party, has stimulated the initiative of a correspondence school, now finally beginning to be realized with the publication of the present batch of study notes.

For almost five years, the Italian revolutionary workers' movement has been plunged into a situation of illegality or semi-legality. Freedom of the press, the rights of assembly, association and propaganda - all these have been virtually suppressed. The formation of leading cadres of the proletariat can, therefore, no longer take place in the ways and by the methods which were traditional in Italy up to 1921. The most active working-class elements are persecuted; all their movements and all their reading is controlled; the workers' libraries have been burnt or otherwise dispersed; the great mass organizations no longer exist, and great mass actions can no longer be carried out. Militants either do not take part at all, or only do so in the most limited way, in discussions and the clash of ideas. An isolated existence, or the occasional gathering of tiny restricted groups; the possibility of becoming habituated to apolitical life which in other times would have seemed exceptional: these engender feelings, states of mind and points of view which are often incorrect, and sometimes even unhealthy.

The new members whom the party gains in such a situation, clearly sincere men of vigorous revolutionary faith, cannot be educated in our methods by the broad activity, wide-ranging discussions and mutual checking which characterize a period of democracy and mass legality. Thus a very serious danger threatens. The mass of the party growing accustomed in the illegal conditions to think only of the expedients necessary to escape the enemy's surprise attacks; growing accustomed to only seeing actions by little groups as possible and immediately organizable; seeing how the dominators have apparently won, and kept, power through the action of armed and militarily organized minorities - draws slowly away from the marxist conception of the proletariat's revolutionary activity. And while it seems to become radicalized, in that extremist statements and bloodthirsty phrases are often heard on its lips, in reality it becomes incapable of defeating the enemy.

The history of the working class, especially in the epoch through which we are passing, shows that this danger is not an imaginary one. The recovery of revolutionary parties, after a period of illegality, is often characterized by an irresistible impulse to action for action's sake; by the absence of any consideration of the real relation of social forces, the state of mind of the broad mass of workers and peasants, the degree to which they are armed, etc. It has thus too often occurred that the revolutionary party has let itself be massacred by a Reaction not yet destroyed, whose resources had not been correctly assessed, while the great masses - who after every reactionary period become extremely prudent, and are easily seized by panic whenever a return to the situation which they have only just left threatens - have remained indifferent and passive.

It is difficult, in general, to prevent such errors from being made. It is, therefore, incumbent on the party to be on its guard, and to carry out specific activity designed to improve the situation and its own organization, and to raise the intellectual level of the members in its ranks during the period of white terror. For these are destined to become the central nucleus, most able to sustain every trial and sacrifice, of the party which will lead the revolution and administer the proletarian State.

The problem thus appears bigger and more complex. The recovery of the revolutionary movement, and especially its victory, pour a great mass of new elements into the party. They cannot be rejected, especially if they are of proletarian origin, since precisely their recruitment is one of the most symptomatic signs of the revolution which is being accomplished. But the problem is posed of how to prevent the central nucleus of the party from being submerged and fragmented by the mighty new wave. We all recall what happened in Italy after the War, in the Socialist Party. The central nucleus, made up of comrades who had remained faithful to the cause during the cataclysm, was reduced to only about 16,000. Yet at the Livorno Congress 220,000 members were represented: in other words, the party contained 200,000 members who had joined since the War, without political preparation, lacking any or almost any notion of marxist doctrine, an easy prey to the rhetorical, petty-bourgeois blusterers who in the years 1919-20 constituted the phenomenon of maximalism. It is not without significance that the present leader of the Socialist party and editor of Avanti! should be precisely Pietro Nenni, who entered the Socialist Party after Livorno but who nevertheless sums up and synthesizes in himself all the ideological weaknesses and distinctive characteristics of post-war maximalism.

It would really be a crime if the same thing were to occur in the Communist Party with respect to the fascist period, as occurred in the Socialist Party with respect to the war period. But this would be inevitable, if our party were not to have an orientation in this field too: if it did not take care in good time to reinforce its present cadres and members ideologically and politically, in order to make them capable of absorbing and incorporating still greater masses, without the organization being too shaken and without the party's profile being thereby altered.

We have posed the problem in its most important practical terms. But it has a basis which goes beyond any immediate contingency. We know that the proletariat's struggle against capitalism is waged on three fronts: the economic, the political and the ideological. The economic struggle has three phases: resistance to capitalism, i.e. the elementary trade-union phase; the offensive against capitalism for workers' control of production; and the struggle to eliminate capitalism through socialization. The political struggle too has three principal phases: the struggle to check the bourgeoisie's power in the parliamentary State, in other words to maintain or create a democratic situation, of equilibrium between the classes, which allows the proletariat to organize; the struggle to win power and create the workers' State, in other words a complex political activity through which the proletariat mobilizes around it all the anti-capitalist social forces (first and foremost the peasant class) and leads them to victory; and the phase of dictatorship of the proletariat, organized as a ruling class to eliminate all the technical and social obstacles which prevent the realization of communism. The economic struggle cannot be separated from the political struggle, nor can either of them be separated from the ideological struggle.

In its first, trade-union phase, the economic struggle is spontaneous; in other words, it is born inevitably of the very situation in which the proletariat finds itself under the bourgeois order. But in itself, it is not revolutionary; in other words, it does not necessarily lead to the overthrow of capitalism, as the syndicalists have maintained - and as with less success they continue to maintain. So true is this, that the reformists and even the fascists allow elementary trade-union struggle; indeed, they assert that the proletariat as a class should not engage in any kind of struggle other than trade-union struggle. The reformists only differ from the fascists in that they say that, if not the proletariat as a class, at least proletarians as individuals and citizens should also struggle for "general democracy", i.e. for bourgeois democracy: in other words, should struggle only to preserve or create the political conditions for a pure struggle of trade-union resistance.

For the trade-union struggle to become a revolutionary factor, it is necessary for the proletariat to accompany it with political struggle: in other words, for the proletariat to be conscious of being the protagonist of a general struggle which touches all the most vital questions of social organization; i.e. for it to be conscious that it is struggling for socialism. The element of "spontaneity" is not sufficient for revolutionary struggle; it never leads the working class beyond the limits of the existing bourgeois democracy. The element of consciousness is needed, the "ideological" element: in other words, an understanding of the conditions of the struggle, the social relations in which the worker lives, the fundamental tendencies at work in the system of those relations, and the process of development which society undergoes as a result of the existence within it of insoluble antagonisms, etc.

The three fronts of proletarian struggle are reduced to a single one for the party of the working class, which is this precisely because it resumes and represents all the demands of the general struggle. One certainly cannot ask every worker from the masses to be completely aware of the whole complex function which his class is destined to perform in the process of development of humanity. But this must be asked of members of the party. One cannot aim, before the conquest of the State, to change completely the consciousness of the entire working class. To do so would be utopian, because class consciousness as such is only changed when the way of living of the class itself has been changed; in other words, when the proletariat has become a ruling class and has at its disposal the apparatus of production and exchange and the power of the State. But the party can and must, as a whole, represent this higher consciousness. Otherwise, it will not be at the head but at the tail of the masses; it will not lead them but be dragged along by them. Hence, the party must assimilate marxism, and assimilate it in its present form, as Leninism.

Theoretical activity, in other words struggle on the ideological front, has always been neglected in the Italian workers' movement. In Italy, Marxism (apart from Antonio Labriola) has been studied more by bourgeois intellectuals, in order to denature it and turn it to the purposes of bourgeois policy, than by revolutionaries. We have thus seen coexisting peacefully in the Italian Socialist Party the most disparate tendencies. We have seen the most contradictory ideas being official opinions of the party. The party leaders never imagined that in order to struggle against bourgeois ideology, i.e. in order to free the masses from the influence of capitalism, it was first necessary to disseminate Marxist doctrine in the party itself and defend it against all false substitutes. This tradition has not been, or at least has not yet been, broken with by our party; has not been broken with in a systematic manner and through a significant, prolonged activity.

People say, however, that Marxism has enjoyed good fortune in Italy, and in a certain sense this is true. But it is also true that this good fortune has not helped the proletariat; has not helped to create new means of struggle; has not been a revolutionary phenomenon. Marxism, or more precisely a few statements taken from Marx's writings, have helped the Italian bourgeoisie to show that it was an inevitable necessity of its development to do without democracy; that it was necessary to trample on the laws; that it was necessary to mock freedom and justice. In other words, what the philosophers of the Italian bourgeoisie called Marxism was the description which Marx gave of the methods the bourgeoisie (without any need for Marxist justifications) uses in its struggle against the workers.

The reformists, to correct this fraudulent interpretation, themselves became democrats, and made themselves into the incense-bearers for all the desecrated saints of capitalism. The theorists of the Italian bourgeoisie have had the astuteness to create the concept of the "proletarian nation"; in other words, to claim that Italy as a whole was "proletarian", and that Marx's conception should be applied not to the struggle of the Italian proletariat against Italian capitalism., but to Italy's struggle against other capitalist states. The "Marxists" of the Socialist Party let these aberrations go without a struggle; indeed, they were accepted by one person - Enrico Ferri - who passed for a great theoretician of socialism. This was the good fortune of Marxism in Italy: that it served as parsley in all the indigestible sauces that most of the reckless adventurers of the pen have sought to put on sale. Marxists of this ilk have included Enrico Ferri, Guglielmo Ferrero, Achille Loria, Paolo Orano, Benito Mussolini .... I I I In order to combat the confusion which has been being created in this way, it is necessary for the party to intensify and systematize its activity in the ideological field; to make it a duty for the militant to know Marxist-Leninist doctrine, at least in the most general terms.

Our party is not a democratic party, at least in the vulgar sense commonly given to this word. It is a party centralized both nationally and internationally. In the international field, our party is simply a section of a larger party, a world party. What repercussions can this type of organization - which is an iron necessity for the revolution - have, and has it already had? Italy itself gives us an answer to this question. As a reaction against the usual custom in the Socialist Party - in which much was discussed and little resolved; where unity was shattered into an infinity of disconnected fragments by the continuous clash of factions, tendencies and often personal cliques - in our party we had ended up by no longer discussing anything. Centralization, unity of approach and conception, had turned into intellectual stagnation. The necessity of ceaseless struggle against fascism, which precisely at the moment of our party's foundation had passed over to its first active, offensive phase, contributed to this state of affairs. But it was also encouraged by the wrong conception of the party set out in the "Theses on Tactics" presented to the Rome Congress. 112 Centralization and unity were understood in too mechanical a fashion: the Central Committee, indeed the Executive Committee, was the entire party, instead of representing and leading it.

If this conception were to be applied permanently, the party would lost its distinctive political features and become, at best, an army (and a bourgeois type of army). In other words, it would lose its power of attraction and become separated from the masses. In order for the party to live and be in contact with the masses, it is necessary for every member of the party to be an active political element, a leader. Precisely because the party is strongly centralized, a vast amount of propaganda and agitation among its ranks is required. It is necessary for the party in an organized fashion to educate its members and raise their ideological level. Centralization means, in particular, that in any situation whatsoever - even when the most rigorous Emergency Laws are in operation, and even if the leading committees are unable to function for a given period or are put in a situation where they cannot maintain contact with the local organizations - all members of the party, and everyone in its ambit, have been rendered capable of orienting themselves and knowing how to derive from reality the elements with which to establish a line, so that the working class will not be cast down but will feel that it is being led and can still fight. Mass ideological preparation is thus a necessity of revolutionary struggle, and one of the indispensable conditions for victory.

This first course of lessons in the party school proposes, within the limits which the situation permits, to carry out a part of this general activity. It will contain three series of lessons: one on the theory of historical materialism; one on the fundamental elements of general politics; one on the Communist Party and its principles of organization. In the first part, which will follow - or simply give a translation of - comrade Bukharin's book on the theory of historical materialism., comrades will find a complete treatment of the subject.

The second part., on general politics, will provide the most elementary notions of the following series of subjects: political economy; the development of capitalism up to the epoch of finance capital; the War and the crisis of capitalism; the development of economic forms; communist society and the transitional régime; communist doctrine of the State; the Ist and IInd Internationals; the IIIrd International; the history of the Russian Bolshevik Party; the history of the Italian Communist Party; soviet power and the structure of the republic of Soviets; the economic policies of Soviet power in the epoch of war communism; the origins and basis of the New Economic Policy; agrarian and peasant policy; trade and cooperation; financial policy; the trade unions, their functions and tasks; the national question.

The third part will systematically set out doctrine concerning the party and the principles of revolutionary organization, such as are developed through the Communist International's activity of leadership, and such as were fixed in a more complete fashion at the Organizational Conference held in Moscow in March of this year. 114

This will be the school's basic course. It cannot be complete, and hence could not satisfy all comrades' needs. To obtain a greater completeness and organicity, it has been decided to publish each month, in the same format as the study-notes, separate dossiers on single subjects. One dossier will be devoted to the trade-union question, and will deal with the most elementary and practical problems of union life (how to organize a union; how to draw up rules; how to launch a wage struggle; how to frame a work-contract; etc.), thus representing a real organizer's manual. Another dossier will be designed to assemble every idea about the economic, social and political structure of Italy. In other dossiers., other specific subjects of working-class politics will be dealt with, in accordance with the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. Furthermore, in every batch of study-notes, in addition to the three lessons, there will be published informative - and formative - notes designed to give direct backing to the lessons themselves; model discussions; didactic advice for study carried out without the help or direct guidance of a teacher, etc.

The study-notes must be seen by the pupils as material to be actually studied, not just read as one reads a newspaper or a pamphlet. The pupils must study as if they had to pass an examination at the end of the course. In other words, they must force themselves to remember and assimilate the subjects dealt with, so as to be capable of delivering reports or holding small meetings. The party will keep the list of pupils, and whenever it needs to will turn to them before anyone else.

So pupils must not be worried if at first many of them have difficulty in understanding certain ideas. The study-notes have been compiled bearing in mind the average formation of the party membership at large. It may happen that for some they will represent things already known, while for others they will be something new and somewhat difficult to digest. Indeed, it is inevitable that this will happen. In these circumstances, the pupils must help each other as far as possible. The establishment of groups and joint recital of the lessons received, may sometimes eliminate this problem. In any case, all pupils are entreated to write to the school administration, explaining their situation, asking for additional elucidation, and recommending other methods or forms of exposition.