Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

An Antonio Gramsci Reader: VII. The Art and Science of Politics

2 War of Position and War of Manoeuvre or Frontal War


SPN, 236-8 (Q716)


It should be seen whether Bronstein [Trotsky]’s famous theory about the permanent character of the movement[5] is not the political reflection of the theory of war of manoeuvre (recall the observation of the Cossack general Krasnov) – i.e. in the last analysis, a reflection of the general-economic-cultural-social conditions in a country in which the structures of national life are embryonic and loose, and incapable of becoming ‘trench or fortress’. In this case one might say that Bronstein, apparently ‘Western’, was in fact a cosmopolitan – i.e. superficially national and superficially Western or European. llyich [Lenin] on the other hand was profoundly national and profoundly European.

Bronstein in his memoirs recalls being told that his theory had been proved true ... fifteen years later, and replying to the epigram with another epigram.[6] In reality his theory, as such, was good neither fifteen years earlier nor fifteen years later. As happens to the obstinate, of whom Guicciardini speaks, he guessed more or less correctly; that is to say, he was right in his more general practical prediction. It is as if one was to prophesy that a little four-year-old girl would become a mother, and when at twenty she did so one said: ‘I guessed that she would’ – overlooking the fact, however, that when she was four years old one had tried to rape the girl, in the belief that she would become a mother even then. It seems to me that llyich understood that a change was necessary from the war of manoeuvre applied victoriously in the East in 1917, to a war of position which was the only form possible in the West where, as Krasnov observes, armies could rapidly accumulate endless quantities of munitions, and where the social structures were of themselves still capable of becoming heavily armed fortifications. This is what the formula of the ‘united front’[7] seems to me to mean, and it corresponds to the conception of a single front for the Entente under the sole command of Foch.

Ilyich, however, did not have time to expand his formula – though it should be borne in mind that he could only have expanded it theoretically, whereas the fundamental task was a national one; that is to say it required a reconnaissance of the terrain and identification of the elements of trench and fortress represented by the elements of civil society, etc. In the East the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The state was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks: more or less numerous from one state to the next, it goes without saying – but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country.

Bronstein’s theory can be compared to that of certain French syndicalists on the general strike, and to Rosa’s theory in the work translated by Alessandri. Rosa’s pamphlet and theories anyway influenced the French syndicalists, as is clear from some of Rosmer’s articles on Germany in Vie Ouvriere (first series in pamphlet form). It partly depends too on the theory of spontaneity.