Translated by Michael Carley
In 1919, Antonio Gramsci, along with several others, set up the weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo before taking up the leadership of the Italian Communist Party. While imprisoned in Italy under Benito Mussolini’s regime, Gramsci wrote thousands of pages of highly original political theory and analysis, eventually collected in the Prison Notebooks. He spent 11 years in prison, dying on 27 April 1937, at the age of 46. This is a lightly edited excerpt, originally published in L’Ordine Nuovo, 25 October 1919.
The international class struggle has culminated in the victory of the workers and peasants of two international proletariats. In Russia and in Hungary the workers and peasants have established the proletarian dictatorship and in Russia as much as in Hungary the dictatorship had to sustain a bitter battle not only against the bourgeois class, but also against the unions: the conflict between the dictatorship and the unions was thus one of the causes of the fall of the Hungarian soviet, since the unions, though they never openly attempted to overthrow the dictatorship, operated always as “splitting” organisms of the revolution and incessantly planted discontent and cowardice among the workers and the red soldiers. Even a rapid examination, of the reasons and the conditions of this conflict cannot fail to be useful in the revolutionary education of the masses, which, if they must be convinced that the union is perhaps the most important proletarian organism of the communist revolution, because on it must be founded the socialisation of industry, because it must create the conditions in which private enterprise disappears and cannot be reborn, must also be convinced of the necessity of creating, before the revolution, the psychological and objective conditions under which will be impossible every conflict and every division of power between the various organisms in which the struggle of the proletarian class against capitalism is embodied.
The class struggle has assumed in all the countries of Europe and of the world a strictly revolutionary character. The conception, which is due to the Third International, according to which the class struggle must be directed towards the installation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, has the upper hand over the democratic ideology and spreads irresistibly among the masses. The socialist parties adhere to the Third International or at least they adhere to the fundamental principles developed at the Moscow Congress; the unions on the other hand have remained faithful to “true democracy” and miss no occasion to induce or oblige the workers to declare themselves adversaries of the dictatorship and to refuse demonstrations of solidarity with the Russia of the soviets. This stance of the unions was rapidly overcome in Russia, since the development of the organisations of trade and industry was accompanied in parallel and with a more accelerated rhythm by the development of factory councils; it has instead eroded the base of proletarian power in Hungary, has caused in Germany great slaughters of communist workers and the birth of the Noske phenomenon, has caused in France the failure of the general strike of 20 to 21 July and the consolidation of the Clemenceau regime, has blocked until now every direct intervention of the English workers in the political struggle and threatens to sunder deeply and dangerously the proletarian forces in every country.
The socialist parties are acquiring ever more a definitely revolutionary and internationalist profile; the unions tend on the other hand to embody the theory (!) and the tactic of reformist opportunism and to become merely national organisms. From them is born an unsustainable state of affairs, a condition of permanent confusion and of chronic weakness for the working class, which increases the general imbalance of society and favours the sprouting of ferments of moral breakdown and of barbarisation. The unions have organised workers according to principles of class struggle and have themselves been the first organic forms of this struggle. The organisers have always said that only the class struggle can bring the proletariat to its emancipation and that union organisation has precisely the aim of suppressing individual profit and the exploitation of man by man, since it is proposed to eliminate the capitalist (the private proprietor) from the industrial process of production and to thus eliminate classes. But the unions cannot immediately bring about this aim and so they turn all their strength to the immediate aim of bettering the conditions of life of the proletariat, demanding higher salaries, reduced working hours, a body of social legislation. Movements followed movements, strikes and the condition of life of the workers became relatively better. But all the results, all the victories of union action are set on the old basis: the principle of private property remains intact and strong, the order of capitalist production and the exploitation of man by man remain intact and thus are complicated in new forms. The eight-hour day, the pay rise, the benefits of social legislation do not touch profit; the imbalances which union action immediately brings about in the test of profit recompose themselves and find a new accommodation in the play of free competition for the nations in the world economy such as England and Germany, in protectionism for the nations with a limited economy such as France and Italy. Capitalism, that is, directs to the amorphous national masses or to the colonial masses the increased general costs of industrial production.
Union action thus shows itself incapable of overcoming in its domain and with its means, capitalist society, shows itself incapable of leading the proletariat to its emancipation, of leading the proletariat to the achievement of the high and universal end which it had initially set itself.
According to syndicalist doctrines, unions should have educated workers in the management of production. Since the industrial unions, it was said, are an integral reflex of a particular industry, they will become the cadres of workers’ ability to manage that particular industry; the union roles will act to make possible a choice of the best workers, of the most studious, of the most intelligent, of the most apt to master the complex mechanism of production and of exchange. The worker leaders of the leather industry will be the most capable in managing that industry, and so on for the metal industry, for the book industry, etc.
Colossal illusion. The choice of the union leaders was never made on criteria of industrial competence, but of merely legal, bureaucratic or demagogic competence. And the more the organisations became larger, the more frequent became their intervention in the class struggle, the more widespread and deep their action, the more it became necessary to reduce the leading office to an office purely of administration and accounting, the more industrial technical capacity became a non-value and bureaucratic and commercial capacity took the upper hand. There was thus formed a real and proper caste of union functionaries and journalists, with a corps psychology absolutely in contrast to the psychology of the workers, which ended with assuming towards the working mass the same position as the governing bureaucracy towards the parliamentary state: it is the bureaucracy which reigns and governs.
The proletarian dictatorship wishes to suppress the order of capitalist production, wishes to suppress private property, because only thus can the exploitation of man by man be suppressed. The proletarian dictatorship wishes to suppress the difference of classes, wishes to suppress the class struggle, because only thus the social emancipation of the working class can be completed. To reach this end the Communist Party educates the proletariat to organise its class power, to make use of this armed power to dominate the bourgeois class and to set the conditions in which the exploiting class will be suppressed and cannot be reborn. The task of the Communist Party in the dictatorship is thus this: to organise powerfully and definitively the class of workers and peasants in a dominant class, check that all the organisms of the new state really develop revolutionary work and break the ancient rights and relations inherent in the principle of private property.
But this action of destruction and control must be immediately accompanied by positive work of creation of production. If this work does not succeed, political strength is in vain, the dictatorship cannot hold: no society can hold without production, even less so the dictatorship which, establishing itself in conditions of economic breakdown produced by five years of war worsened by months and months of bourgeois armed terrorism, thus needs intense production.
And this is the vast and magnificent task which should be opened to the activity of the industrial unions. They precisely will have to begin the socialisation, they will have to initiate a new order of production, in which the enterprise will be based not on the owner’s desire for wealth, but on the common interest of the social community which for every branch of industry comes out of the generic formlessness and solidifies in the corresponding workers’ union.
In the Hungarian soviet the unions absented themselves from all creative work. Politically the union functionaries placed continual obstacles before the dictatorship, constituting a state within the state, economically they remained inert: more than once the factories had to be socialised against the will of the unions. But the leaders of the Hungarian organisations were limited spiritually, they had a bureaucratic-reformist psychology, and they continuously feared losing the power which until then they had exercised over the workers. Since the function for which the unions had developed until the dictatorship was inherent in the predominance of the bourgeois class, and since the functionaries did not have technical industrial capacity, they maintained the immaturity of the proletarian class in the direct management of production, they maintained “real” democracy, that is the maintenance of the bourgeoisie in its principal positions of the proletarian class, they wanted to perpetuate and worsen the era of the agreements, of the labour contracts, of social legislation, to be capable of making their competence valued. They wanted the international revolution … to be awaited, not being able to understand the international revolution was happening precisely in Hungary with the Hungarian revolution, in Russia with the Russian revolution, in all of Europe with the general strikes, with the military decrees, with the conditions of life made impossible for the working class by the consequences of war.