Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci 1926

Once again on the Organic Capacities of the Working Class

Unsigned, L'Unità, 1 October 1926

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.

Six years have passed since September 1920. In the intervening period, many things have changed among the working-class masses who in September 1920 occupied the factories in the metal-working industry. A notable part of the most active and combative workers, who in those years of heroic struggle represented the vanguard of the working class, are outside Italy. Marked with a triple cross on the black lists; after months and months of unemployment; after having tried every way (by changing trade, isolating themselves in small plants, etc., etc.) of remaining in their homeland to continue the revolutionary struggle, and to reconstruct each day the links which each day reaction was destroying; after unheard of sacrifices and sufferings – they were forced to emigrate. Six years are a long time. A new generation has already entered the factories: of workers who in 1920 were still adolescents or children, and who at most took part in political life by acting out in the streets the war between the Red Army and the Polish Army, and by refusing to be the Polish one even in a game. Yet the occupation of the factories has not been forgotten by the masses, and this is true not just of the working-class masses but also of the peasant masses. It was the general test of the Italian revolutionary class, which as a class showed that it was mature; that it was capable of initiative; that it possessed an incalculable wealth of creative and organizational energies. If the movement failed, the responsibility cannot be laid at the door of the working class as such, but at that of the Socialist Party, which failed in its duty; which was incapable and inept; which was at the tail of the working class not at its head.

The occupation of the factories is still on the agenda in the conversations and discussions which take place at the base, between vanguard elements and those who are more backward and passive, or between the former and class enemies. Recently, in a meeting of peasants and artisans in a village of Southern Italy (all sympathizers of our party), after a brief report on the present situation two kinds of questions were raised by those present.

1. What is happening in Russia? How are the local authorities organized in Russia? How do they succeed in getting the workers and peasants to agree, given that the former want to buy foodstuffs cheap and the latter want to sell them at a decent price? Are the officers of the Red Army and the functionaries of the Soviet State like officers and functionaries in our country? Are they a different class, or are they workers and peasants?

2. Explain to us why we workers (an artisan was speaking, a blacksmith) abandoned the factories which we had occupied in September 1920. The gentry still say to us: “Did you occupy the factories, yes or no? Why then did you abandon them? Certainly because without 'capital' one cannot do anything. You sent away the capitalists and so the 'capital' was not there, and you went bankrupt.” Explain the whole question to us, so that we will be able to reply. We know that the gentry are wrong, but we do not know how to put our arguments and often have to shut our mouths.

The revolutionary impact of the occupation of the factories was enormous, both in Italy and abroad. Why? Because the working masses saw in it a confirmation of the Russian revolution, in a Western country more industrially advanced than Russia, with a working class that was better organized, technically more skilled, and industrially more homogeneous and cohesive than was the Russian proletariat in October 1917. Are we capable of running production for ourselves, in accordance with our interests and a plan of our own? – wondered the workers. Are we capable of reorganizing production in such a way as to transfer society as a whole onto new tracks leading to the abolition of classes and economic equality? The test was positive, within the limits in which it took place and developed; within the limits in which the experiment could be carried through; in the sphere of the problems that were posed and resolved.

The experiment was limited, in general, to relations within the factory. Contacts between one factory and another were minimal from the industrial point of view; they occurred only for purposes of military defence, and even in this sense they were rather empirical and rudimentary.

The positive aspects of the occupation of the factories can be briefly resumed under the following headings.

1. Capacity for self-government of the mass of workers. In normal mass activity, the working class generally appears as a passive element awaiting orders. During struggles, strikes, etc., the masses are required to show the following qualities: solidarity, obedience to the mass organization, faith in their leaders, a spirit of resistance and sacrifice. But the masses are static, like an immense body with a tiny head.

The occupation of the factories required an unprecedented multiplicity of active, leading elements. Each factory had to put together its own government, which was invested at once with political and with industrial authority. Only a part of the technicians and white-collar employees remained at their posts; the majority deserted the plants. The workers had to choose from their own ranks technicians, clerks, managers, foremen, accountants, etc. etc. This task was performed brilliantly. The old management, when it took up its functions again, had no administrative difficulties to overcome. The normal functions of an enterprise had been kept up to date, in spite of the fact that the technical and administrative personnel was extremely limited and made up of “crude, ignorant” workers.

2. Capacity of the mass of workers to maintain or exceed the capitalist order's level of production. The following occurred. The work force was reduced – because a tiny proportion did desert their work; because a certain proportion was assigned to military defence; because a certain proportion was working to produce objects that were not precisely for current use, although they were very useful for the proletariat; and because workers had had to replace the majority of technicians and white-collar workers who had deserted – and in spite of all this, production kept up to the earlier level and often exceeded it. More cars were produced at FIAT than before the occupation, and the “workers”’ cars displayed to the public daily by proletarian FIAT were not among the least of the reasons for the undeniable sympathy which the occupation enjoyed among the general population of the city of Turin, including among intellectuals and even tradesmen (who accepted the workers' goods as excellent currency).

3. Limitless capacity for initiative and creation of the working masses. An entire volume would be needed to cover this point fully. Initiative developed in every direction. In the industrial field, because of the need to resolve technical questions of industrial organization and production. In the military field, in order to turn every slight possibility into an instrument of defence. In the artistic field, through the capacity shown on Sundays to find ways of entertaining the masses by theatrical and other performances, in which Mise-en-scéne, production, everything was devised by the workers. It was really necessary to see with one's own eyes old workers, who seemed broken down by decades upon decades of oppression and exploitation, stand upright even in a physical sense during the period of the occupation – see them develop fantastic activities; suggesting, helping, always active day and night. It was necessary to see these and other sights, in order to be convinced how limitless the latent powers of the masses are, and how they are revealed and develop swiftly as soon as the conviction takes root among the masses that they are arbiters and masters of their own destinies.

As a class, the Italian workers who occupied the factories revealed themselves to be up to their tasks and functions. All the problems which the needs of the movement posed for them to resolve were resolved brilliantly. They could not resolve the problems of re-stocking or communications, because the railways and merchant fleet were not occupied. They could not resolve the financial problems, because the institutes of credit and commercial firms were not occupied. They could not resolve the big national and international problems, because they did not conquer State power. These problems should have been confronted by the Socialist Party and by the unions, which instead capitulated shamefully, giving the immaturity of the masses as a pretext. In reality, it was the leaders who were immature and incapable, not the class. This was the reason why the Livorno split took place and a new party was created, the Communist Party.

First Note. The Tribuna finds that our method of reading is “subjective.” On questions of method, Tribuna's author gives a helping hand to the Mondo correspondent, who despite the intellectual vicinity of Adriano Tilgher has managed to call in question Einstein and relativism. With the “objective” method of Tribuna, men would still be clinging to the idea that the earth stands still while the sun moves round it. We think Tribuna's correspondent is confusing “subjectivism” with common “intelligence.”

Second note. A correspondent from Regime Fascista has intervened in the discussion about the organic capacity of the working class, demonstrating merely that he does not know even the political nomenclature in Soviet Russia. We are told that the Regime Fascista writer is a certain Father Pantaleo, who has thrown off the habit. It is remarkable how many talented unfrocked priests and monks are fuelling the anti-working-class and anti-Bolshevik campaign in our country, under the banner of religion and Catholicism – they who are at least excommunicated: Romolo Murri, political columnist of Il Resto del Carlino; Don Preziosi of Vita Italiana and Il Mezzogiorno; Aurelio Palmieri, the former Jesuit who serves as parsley in every anti-Soviet sauce; and this Father Pantaleo of Regime Fascista.