Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

An Antonio Gramsci Reader: VIII. Passive Revolution, Caesarism, Fascism

1 The Problem of Political Leadership in the Formation and Development of the Modern State in Italy

SPN, 55-85 (Q19§24)

The whole problem of the connection between the various political currents of the Risorgimento – of their relations with each other, and of their relations with the homogeneous or subordinate social groups existing in the various historical sections (or sectors) of the national territory – can be reduced to the following basic factual datum. The Moderates represented a relatively homogeneous social group, and hence their leadership underwent relatively limited oscillations (in any case, subject to an organically progressive line of development); whereas the so-called Action Party did not base itself specifically on any historical class, and the oscillations which its leading organs underwent were resolved, in the last analysis, according to the interests of the Moderates. In other words, the Action Party was led historically by the Moderates. The assertion attributed to Victor Emmanuel II that he ‘had the Action Party in his pocket’, or something of the kind, was in practice accurate – not only because of the King’s personal contacts with Garibaldi, but because the Action Party was in fact ‘indirectly’ led by Cavour and the King.[1]

The methodological criterion on which our own study must be based is the following: that the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as ‘domination’ [dominio] and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ [direzione]. A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to ‘liquidate’, or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force; it leads kindred and allied groups. A social group can, and indeed must, already exercise ‘leadership’ before winning governmental power (this indeed is one of the principal conditions for the winning of such power); it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to ‘lead’ as well.

The Moderates continued to lead the Action Party even after 1870 and 1876, and so-called ‘transformism’ was only the parliamentary expression of this action of intellectual, moral and political hegemony.[2] Indeed one might say that the entire state life of Italy from 1848 onwards has been characterized by transformism – in other words by the formation of an ever more extensive ruling class, within the framework established by the Moderates after 1848 and the collapse of the neo-Guelph and federalist utopias.[3] The formation of this class involved the gradual but continuous absorption, achieved by methods which varied in their effectiveness, of the active elements produced by allied groups – and even of those which came from antagonistic groups and seemed irreconcilably hostile. In this sense political leadership became merely an aspect of the function of domination – in as much as the absorption of the enemies’ elites means their decapitation, and annihilation often for a very long time. It seems clear from the policies of the Moderates that there can, and indeed must, be hegemonic activity even before the rise to power, and that one should not count only on the material force which power gives in order to exercise an effective leadership. It was precisely the brilliant solution of these problems which made the Risorgimento possible, in the form in which it was achieved (and with its limitations) – as ‘revolution’ without a ‘revolution’, or as ‘passive revolution’ to use an expression of Cuoco’s in a slightly different sense from that which Cuoco intended.[4]

In what forms, and by what means, did the Moderates succeed in establishing the apparatus (mechanism) of their intellectual, moral and political hegemony? In forms, and by means, which may be called ‘liberal’ – in other words through individual, ‘molecular’, ‘private’ initiative (i.e. not through a party programme worked out and constituted according to a plan, in advance of the practical and organizational action). However, that was ‘normal’ given the structure and the function of the social groups of which the Moderates were the representatives, the leading stratum, the organic intellectuals.

For the Action Party, the problem presented itself deliberately, and different systems of organization should have been adopted. The Moderates were intellectuals already naturally ‘condensed’ by the organic nature of their relation to the social groups whose expression they were. (As far as a whole series of them were concerned, there was realized the identity of the represented and the representative; in other words, the Moderates were a real, organic vanguard of the upper classes, to which economically they belonged. They were intellectuals and political organizers, and at the same time company bosses, rich farmers or estate managers, commercial and industrial entrepreneurs, etc.) Given this organic condensation or concentration, the Moderates exercised a powerful attraction ‘spontaneously’, on the whole mass of intellectuals of every degree who existed in the peninsula, in a ‘diffused’, ‘molecular’ state, to provide for the requirements, however rudimentarily satisfied, of education and administration. One may detect here the methodological consistency of a criterion of historico-political research: there does not exist any independent class of intellectuals, but every social group has its own stratum of intellectuals, or tends to form one; however, the intellectuals of the historically (and concretely) progressive class, in the given conditions, exercise such a power of attraction that, in the last analysis, they end up by subjugating the intellectuals of the other social groups; they thereby create a system of solidarity between all the intellectuals, with bonds of a psychological nature (vanity, etc.) and often of a caste character (technico-juridical, corporate, etc.).

This phenomenon manifests itself ‘spontaneously’ in the historical periods in which the given social group is really progressive – i.e. really causes the whole society to move forward, not merely satisfying its own existential requirements, but continuously augmenting its cadres for the conquest of ever new spheres of economic and productive activity. As soon as the dominant social group has exhausted its function, the ideological bloc tends to crumble away; then ‘spontaneity’ may be replaced by ‘constraint’ in ever less disguised and indirect forms, culminating in outright police measures and coups d'état.

The Action Party not only could not have – given its character – a similar power of attraction, but was itself attracted and influenced: on the one hand, as a result of the atmosphere of intimidation (panic fear of a terror like that of 1793, reinforced by the events in France of 1848-49 (which made it hesitate to include in its programme certain popular demands (for instance, agrarian reform); and, on the other, because certain of its leading personalities (Garibaldi) had, even if only desultorily (they wavered), a relationship of personal subordination to the Moderate leaders. For the Action Party to have become an autonomous force and, in the last analysis, for it to have succeeded at the very least in stamping the movement of the Risorgimento with a more markedly popular and democratic character (more than that perhaps it could not have achieved, given the fundamental premisses of the movement itself), it would have had to counterpose to the ‘empirical’ activity of the Moderates (which was empirical only in a manner of speaking, since it corresponded perfectly to the objective) an organic programme of government which would reflect the essential demands of the popular masses, and in the first place of the peasantry. To the ‘spontaneous’ attraction of the Moderates it would have had to counterpose a resistance and a counter-offensive ‘organized’ according to a plan.

[...] The Action Party was steeped in the traditional rhetoric of Italian literature. It confused the cultural unity which existed in the peninsula – confined, however, to a very thin stratum of the population, and polluted by the Vatican’s cosmopolitanism – with the political and territorial unity of the great popular masses, who were foreign to that cultural tradition and who, even supposing that they knew of its existence, couldn’t have cared less about it. A comparison may be made between the Jacobins and the Action Party. The Jacobins strove with determination to ensure a bond between town and country, and they succeeded triumphantly. Their defeat as a specific party was due to the fact that at a certain point they came up against the demands of the Paris workers; but in reality they were perpetuated in another form by Napoleon, and today, very wretchedly, by the radical-socialists of Herriot and Daladier.


If one goes deeper into the question, it appears that from many aspects the difference between many members of the Action Party and the Moderates was more one of ‘temperament’ than of an organically political character. The term ‘Jacobin’ has ended up by taking on two meanings: there is the literal meaning, characterized historically, of a particular party in the French Revolution, which conceived of the development of French life in a particular way, with a particular programme, on the basis of particular social forces; and there are also the particular methods of party and government activity which they displayed, characterized by extreme energy, decisiveness and resolution, dependent on a fanatical belief in the virtue of that programme and those methods. In political language the two aspects of Jacobinism were split, and the term ‘Jacobin’ came to be used for a politician who was energetic, resolute and fanatical, because fanatically convinced of the thaumaturgical virtues of his ideas, whatever they might be. This definition stressed the destructive elements derived from hatred of rivals and enemies, more than the constructive one derived from having made the demands of the popular masses one’s own; the sectarian elements of the clique, of the small group, of unrestrained individualism, more than the national political element. [...] It is obvious that, in order to counterpose itself effectively to the Moderates, the Action Party ought to have allied itself with the rural masses, especially those in the South, and ought to have been ‘Jacobin’ not only in external ‘form’, in temperament, but most particularly in socio-economic content. The binding together of the various rural classes, which was accomplished in a reactionary bloc by means of the various legitimist-clerical intellectual strata, could be dissolved, so as to arrive at a new liberal-national formation, only if support was won from two directions: from the peasant masses, by accepting their elementary demands and making these an integral part of the new programme of government; and from the intellectuals of the middle and lower strata, by concentrating them and stressing the themes most capable of interesting them (and the prospect of a new apparatus of government being formed, with the possibilities of employment which it offered, would already have been a formidable element of attraction for them – if that prospect had appeared concrete, because based on the aspirations of the peasantry).

The relation between these two actions was dialectical and reciprocal: the experience of many countries, first and foremost that of France in the period of the great Revolution, has shown that, if the peasants move through ‘spontaneous’ impulses, the intellectuals start to waver; and, reciprocally, if a group of intellectuals situates itself on a new basis of concrete pro-peasant policies, it ends up by drawing with it ever more important elements of the masses. However, one may say that, given the dispersal and the isolation of the rural population and hence the difficulty of welding it into solid organizations, it is best to start the movement from the intellectual groups; however, in general, it is the dialectical relation between the two actions which has to be kept in mind. It may also be said that peasant parties in the strict sense of the word are almost impossible to create. The peasant party generally is achieved only as a strong current of opinion, and not in schematic forms of bureaucratic organization. However, the existence even of only a skeleton organization is of immense usefulness, both as a selective mechanism, and for controlling the intellectual groups and preventing caste interests from transporting them imperceptibly onto different ground.


On the subject of Jacobinism and the Action Party, an element to be highlighted is the following: that the Jacobins won their function of ‘leading’ [dirigente] party by a struggle to the death; they literally ‘imposed’ themselves on the French bourgeoisie, leading it into a far more advanced position than the originally strongest bourgeois nuclei would have spontaneously wished to take up, and even far more advanced than that which the historical premisses should have permitted – hence the various forms of backlash and the function of Napoleon I. This feature, characteristic of Jacobinism (but before that, also of Cromwell and the Roundheads) and hence of the entire French Revolution, which consists in (apparently) forcing the situation, in creating irreversible faits accomplis, and in a group of extremely energetic and determined men driving the bourgeois forward with kicks in the backside, may be schematized in the following way. The Third Estate was the least homogeneous of the estates; it had a very disparate intellectual elite, and a group which was very advanced economically but politically moderate. Events developed along highly interesting lines. The representatives of the Third Estate initially only posed those questions which interested the actual physical members of the social group, their immediate ‘corporate’ interests (corporate in the traditional sense, of the immediate and narrowly selfish interests of a particular category). The precursors of the Revolution were in fact moderate reformers, who shouted very loud but actually demanded very little. Gradually a new elite was selected out which did not concern itself solely with ‘corporate’ reforms, but tended to conceive of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic group of all the popular forces. This selection occurred through the action of two factors: the resistance of the old social forces, and the international threat. The old forces did not wish to concede anything, and if they did concede anything they did it with the intention of gaining time and preparing a counter-offensive. The Third Estate would have fallen into these successive ‘pitfalls’ without the energetic action of the Jacobins, who opposed every ‘intermediate’ halt in the revolutionary process, and sent to the guillotine not only the elements of the old society which was hard a-dying, but also the revolutionaries of yesterday – today become reactionaries. The Jacobins, consequently, were the only party of the revolution in progress, in as much as they not only represented the immediate needs and aspirations of the actual physical individuals who constituted the French bourgeoisie, but they also represented the revolutionary movement as a whole, as an integral historical development. For they represented future needs as well, and, once again, not only the needs of those particular physical individuals, but also of all the national groups which had to be assimilated to the existing fundamental group. It is necessary to insist, against a tendentious and fundamentally anti-historical school of thought, that the Jacobins were realists of the Machiavelli stamp and not abstract dreamers. They were convinced of the absolute truth of their slogans about equality, fraternity and liberty, and, what is more important, the great popular masses whom the Jacobins stirred up and drew into the struggle were also convinced of their truth.

The Jacobins’ language, their ideology, their methods of action reflected perfectly the exigencies of the epoch, even if ‘today’, in a different situation and after more than a century of cultural evolution, they may appear ‘abstract’ and ‘frenetic’. Naturally they reflected those exigencies according to the French cultural tradition. One proof of this is the analysis of Jacobin language which is to be found in The Holy Family.[5] Another is Hegel’s admission, when he places as parallel and reciprocally translatable the juridico-political language of the Jacobins and the concepts of classical German philosophy – which is recognized today to have the maximum of concreteness and which was the source of modern historicism.[6] The first necessity was to annihilate the enemy forces, or at least to reduce them to impotence in order to make a counter-revolution impossible. The second was to enlarge the cadres of the bourgeoisie as such, and to place the latter at the head of all the national forces; this meant identifying the interests and the requirements common to all the national forces, in order to set these forces in motion and lead them into the struggle, obtaining two results: (a) that of opposing a wider target to the blows of the enemy, i.e. of creating a politico-military relation favourable to the revolution; (b) that of depriving the enemy of every zone of passivity in which it would be possible to enrol Vendée-type armies.[7] Without the agrarian policy of the Jacobins, Paris would have had the Vendée at its very doors.

The resistance of the Vendée properly speaking is linked to the national question, which had become envenomed among the peoples of Brittany and in general among those alien to the slogan of the ‘single and indivisible republic’ and to the policy of bureaucratic-military centralization – a slogan and a policy which the Jacobins could not renounce without committing suicide. The Girondins tried to exploit federalism in order to crush Jacobin Paris, but the provincial troops brought to Paris went over to the revolutionaries. Except for certain marginal areas, where the national (and linguistic) differentiation was very great, the agrarian question proved stronger than aspirations to local autonomy. Rural France accepted the hegemony of Paris; in other words, it understood that in order definitively to destroy the old regime it had to make a bloc with the most advanced elements of the Third Estate, and not with the Girondin moderates. If it is true that the Jacobins ‘forced’ its hand, it is also true that this always occurred in the direction of real historical development. For not only did they organize a bourgeois government, i.e. make the bourgeois the dominant class – they did more. They created the bourgeois state, made the bourgeoisie into the leading, hegemonic class of the nation, in other words gave the new state a permanent basis and created the compact modern French nation.

That the Jacobins, despite everything, always remained on bourgeois ground is demonstrated by the events which marked their end, as a party cast in too specific and inflexible a mould, and by the death of Robespierre. Maintaining the Le Chapelier law, they were not willing to concede to the workers the right of combination; as a consequence they had to pass the law of the maximum.[8] They thus broke the Paris urban bloc: their assault forces, assembled in the Commune, dispersed in disappointment, and Thermidor gained the upper hand. The Revolution had found its widest class limits. The policy of alliances and of permanent revolution had finished by posing new questions which at that time could not be resolved; it had unleashed elemental forces which only a military dictatorship was to succeed in containing.

In the Action Party there was nothing to be found which resembled this Jacobin approach, this inflexible will to become the ‘leading’ [dirigente] party. Naturally one has to allow for the differences: in Italy the struggle manifested itself as a struggle against old treaties and the existing international order, and against a foreign power – Austria – which represented these and upheld them in Italy, occupying a part of the peninsula and controlling the rest. This problem arose in France too, in a certain sense at least, since at a certain point the internal struggle became a national struggle fought at the frontiers. But this only happened after the whole territory had been won for the revolution, and the Jacobins were able to utilize the external threat as a spur to greater energy internally: they well understood that in order to defeat the external foe they had to crush his allies internally, and they did not hesitate to carry out the September massacres.[9] In Italy, although a similar connection, both explicit and implicit, did exist between Austria and at least a segment of the intellectuals, the nobles and the landowners, it was not denounced by the Action Party; or at least it was not denounced with the proper energy and in the most practically effective manner, and it did not become a real political issue. It became transformed ‘curiously’ into a question of greater or lesser patriotic dignity, and subsequently gave rise to a trail of acrimonious and sterile polemics which continued even after 1898. [...]

If in Italy a Jacobin party was not formed, the reasons are to be sought in the economic field, that is to say in the relative weakness of the Italian bourgeoisie and in the different historical climate in Europe after 1815. The limit reached by the Jacobins, in their policy of forced reawakening of French popular energies to be allied with the bourgeoisie, with the Le Chapelier law and that of the maximum, appeared in 1848 as a ‘spectre’ which was already threatening – and this was skillfully exploited by Austria, by the old governments and even by Cavour (quite apart from the Pope). The bourgeoisie could not (perhaps) extend its hegemony further over the great popular strata – which it did succeed in embracing in France – (could not for subjective rather than objective reasons); but action directed at the peasantry was certainly always possible.

Differences between France, Germany and Italy in the process by which the bourgeoisie took power (and England). It was in France that the process was richest in developments, and in active and positive political elements. In Germany, it evolved in ways which in certain aspects resembled what happened in Italy, and in others what happened in England. In Germany, the movement of 1848 failed as a result of the scanty bourgeois concentration (the Jacobin-type slogan was furnished by the democratic extreme left: ‘permanent revolution’[10]), and because the question of renewal of the state was intertwined with the national question. The wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870 resolved both the national question and, in an intermediate form, the class question: the bourgeoisie obtained economic-industrial power, but the old feudal classes remained as the government stratum of the political state, with wide corporate privileges in the army, the administration and on the land. Yet at least, if these old classes kept so much importance in Germany and enjoyed so many privileges, they exercised a national function, became the ‘intellectuals’ of the bourgeoisie, with a particular temperament conferred by their caste origin and by tradition.

In England, where the bourgeois revolution took place before that in France, we have a similar phenomenon to the German one of fusion between the old and the new – this notwithstanding the extreme energy of the English ‘Jacobins’, i.e. Cromwell’s Roundheads. The old aristocracy remained as a governing stratum, with certain privileges, and it too became the intellectual stratum of the English bourgeoisie (it should be added that the English aristocracy has an open structure, and continually renews itself with elements coming from the intellectuals and the bourgeoisie). [...]

The explanation given by Antonio Labriola of the fact that the Junkers and Kaiserism continued in power in Germany, despite the great capitalist development, adumbrates the correct explanation: the class relations created by industrial development, with the limits of bourgeois hegemony reached and the position of the progressive classes reversed, have induced the bourgeoisie not to struggle with all its strength against the old regime, but to allow a part of the latter’s facade to subsist, behind which it can disguise its own real domination.

These variations in the process whereby the same historical development manifests itself in different countries have to be related not only to the differing combinations of internal relations within the different nations, but also to the differing international relations (international relations are usually underestimated in this kind of research). The Jacobin spirit, audacious, dauntless, is certainly related to the hegemony exercised for so long by France in Europe, as well as to the existence of an urban centre like Paris and to the centralization attained in France thanks to the absolute monarchy. The Napoleonic wars on the other hand, intellectually so fertile for the renovation of Europe, nonetheless through their enormous destruction of manpower – and these were men taken from among the boldest and most enterprising – weakened not only the militant political energy of France but that of other nations as well.

International relations were certainly very important in determining the line of development of the Italian Risorgimento, but they were exaggerated by the Moderate Party, and by Cavour for party reasons. Cavour’s case is noteworthy in this connection. Before the Quarto expedition and the crossing of the Straits, he feared Garibaldi’s initiative like the devil, because of the international complications which it might create. He was then himself impelled by the enthusiasm created by the Thousand in European opinion to the point where he saw as feasible an immediate new war against Austria.[11] There existed in Cavour a certain professional diplomat’s distortion, which led him to see ‘too many’ difficulties, and induced him into ‘conspiratorial’ exaggerations, and into prodigies (which to a considerable extent were simply tightrope-walking) of subtlety and intrigue. In any case Cavour acted eminently as a party man. Whether in fact his party represented the deepest and most durable national interests, even if only in the sense of the widest extension which could be given to the community of interests between the bourgeoisie and the popular masses, is another question.

With respect to the ‘Jacobin’ slogan formulated in 1846-49, its complex fortunes are worth studying.[12] Taken up again, systematized, developed, intellectualized by the Parvus-Bronstein group, it proved inert and ineffective in 1905, and subsequently. It had become an abstract thing, belonging in the scientist’s cabinet. The tendency which opposed it in this literary form, and indeed did not use it ‘on purpose’, applied it in fact in a form which adhered to actual, concrete, living history, adapted to the time and the place; as something that sprang from all the pores of the particular society which had to be transformed; as the alliance of two social groups with the hegemony of the urban group.

In one case, you had the Jacobin temperament without an adequate political content; in the second, a Jacobin temperament and content derived from the new historical relations, and not from a literary and intellectualistic label.