Socialist Worker

Gramsci and the phases of war

In the first part of our new series Chris Bambery looks at the link between workers’ struggle and revolution

Issue No. 2152

In November 1930 the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote from his prison cell on the effects of the unfolding economic depression and the possibilities for revolutionary advance.

This entry in his Prison Notebooks was a direct criticism of the leadership of the Italian Communist Party which he had helped to found.

In line with Joseph Stalin, the Italian Communists argued that the Wall Street Crash of 1929 heralded the final crisis of capitalism and had led to the opening up of a revolutionary offensive by the working class.

Young communists crept across the Italian border to begin “mass work” to overthrow the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Within weeks they were swept up by the fascist secret police.

Some were dispatched to Gramsci’s jail and clashed angrily with him when he rubbished the idea that revolution was on the immediate agenda.

Using a famous analogy Gramsci compared a “war of manoeuvre” with a “war of position”. The former was the kind of lightning offensive employed on the Eastern Front in the First World War.

The latter was the kind of trench warfare which dominated the Western and Italian fronts.

Gramsci developed the analogy in relation to the economic crisis.

He wrote, “A crisis does not enable the attacking troops to organise themselves at lightning speed in time and in space, much less does it infuse them with a fighting spirit.

“On the other side of the coin, the defenders are not demoralised, nor do they abandon their defensive positions, even in the midst of the rubble, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or their own feature.”

He adds, “This is not to say that everything remains intact, but events do not unfold at lightning speed.”

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 created a huge crisis of confidence within the ruling class and its apologists. Fear of revolution combined with deep splits as to how the crisis might be solved.

That meant opportunities for the left and the working class but did not mean their opponents simply deserted the field.

In Italy the fascist dictatorship had already smashed working class opposition and was able to retain control.

Gramsci argued that the Communists, who denounced the socialists for being as bad as the fascists, had to create an anti-fascist alliance with them and others.

He warned that even if Mussolini was toppled it would not lead to an immediate revolutionary moment.

Working class resistance did rise, but not at the speed which would have allowed for an offensive leading to an immediate revolutionary conclusion.

Around the world the immediate focus for resistance was among the unemployed.

In Chicago young Communists organised in the doss houses where young, homeless unemployed people found shelter.

In Britain the National Unemployed Workers Movement led not just hunger marches but also resistance to unemployed families having to sell off belongings before they could be awarded the dole.

The shock of Hitler taking power in Germany in January 1933 led to an upsurge in anti-fascism.

In February 1934 the French fascists led an attack on parliament which succeeded in toppling a centre-left led government.

Fascism seemed set to sweep all before it. The French unions called a one day general strike which leapt out of their control. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated and the fascists were put on the back foot.

1934 also saw a degree of economic recovery. In France this combination of events created the beginnings of a mass strike wave.

In the US three rank and file led strikes by Minneapolis truck workers, San Francisco dockers and Toledo tyre workers saw a strike wave culminating in occupations which unionised the car, rubber and steel companies.

In Britain a committee formed to welcome hunger marchers passing through Oxford began working to unionise the Cowley car plant.

When thousands of women struck over piece rates they turned to these left wingers who helped create a rank and file strike committee.

The strike won union recognition. Strikes and union organisation spread across aerospace, car plants, mines and among apprentices.

By 1934-6 the possibilities of a revolutionary breakthrough could be glimpsed. But victory is never assured.


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