Gramsci and the Russian Revolution


What did a young Antonio Gramsci think about the Russian Revolution?

Eighty years ago, on April 27, 1937, Antonio Gramsci died after spending his last decade in fascist prison. Recognized later for the theoretical work in his prison notebooks, Gramsci’s political contributions started during the Great War when he was a young linguistic student at the University of Turin. Even then, his articles in the socialist press challenged not only the war, but Italian liberal, nationalist, and Catholic culture.


At the beginning of 1917 Gramsci was working as a journalist in a local Turin socialist newspaper, Il Grido del Popolo (The Cry of the People) and collaborating with the Piedmont edition of Avanti! (Forward!). In the first months after Russia’s February Revolution, news about it was still scarce in Italy. They were largely limited to the reproduction of articles from news agencies of London and Paris. In Avanti! some Russia coverage used to come out in the articles signed by “Junior,” a pseudonym of Vasilij Vasilevich Suchomlin, a Socialist  Revolutionary  Russian exile.


To supply the Italian Socialists with reliable information, the leadership of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) sent a telegram to Deputy Oddino Morgari, who was in Hague, asking him to go to Petrograd and get in touch with the revolutionaries. The trip failed and Morgari returned to Italy in July. On April 20, Avanti! published a note, written by Gramsci, about the congressman’s attempt to travel, calling him the “red ambassador.” His enthusiasm about the events in Russia was visible. Gramsci at this point considered that the potential strength of the Italian working class to face the war had a direct connection with the strength of the Russian proletariat. He thought that with the revolution in Russia, all international relations would be fundamentally changed.

The world war was going through its most intense moments and the military mobilization deeply affected the Italian people. Angelo Tasca, Umberto Terracini, and Palmiro Togliatti, friends and comrades of Gramsci, were summoned to the front — from which Gramsci was exempted due to his precarious health. That’s how journalism became his “front.” In the article about Morgari, Gramsci favorably quoted a statement of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, published in Italy by Corriere della Sera, calling for all governments in Europe to renounce their military offensive and follow only defensive maneuvers against the German attack. It was the position of “revolutionary defensism,” adopted by a large majority at the Pan-Russian Soviets Conference, in April. Avanti!, a few days later, would reproduce the resolution of this conference, translated by Junior.


But, as fresh news arrived, Gramsci began to develop his own interpretation on what was going on in Russia. In late April 1917, he published in Il Grido del Popolo an article entitled “Note sulla rivoluzione russa” (“Notes on the Russian Revolution”). Contrary to most Socialists at the time — who analyzed Russian events as a new French Revolution — Gramsci spoke of it as a “proletarian act” that would lead to socialism.


For Gramsci, the Russian Revolution was very different than the Jacobin model, seen as a mere “bourgeois revolution.” In interpreting the events of Petrograd, Gramsci exposed a political program for the future. In order to continue the movement, to move towards a workers’ revolution, the Russian socialists should definitely break with the Jacobin model — identified here with the systematic use of violence and with low cultural activity.


In the following months of 1917, Gramsci quickly aligned himself with the Bolsheviks, a position that also expressed his identity with the more radical and antiwar factions of the PSI. In a July 28 article, “I massimalisti russi” (“Russian maximalists”), Gramsci declared full support for Lenin and what he called the “maximalist” politics. This represented, in his opinion, “the continuity of the revolution, the rhythm of the revolution and, therefore, the revolution itself.” The maximalists were the incarnation of the “limiting idea of socialism,” without any commitment to the past.


Gramsci insisted that the revolution could not be interrupted, and should overcome the bourgeois world. For the journalist of Il Grido del Popolo, the biggest risk of all revolutions, especially of the Russian, was the development of the perception that the process had reached a point of closure. The maximalists were the force opposed to this interruption and, for this reason, “the last logical link of the revolutionary process.” In Gramsci’s reasoning, the whole revolutionary process was chained together and propelled in a movement where the strongest and most determined were able to push the weakest and most confused.

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