Antonio Gramsci
Original publication:
Translation: Moulinavent Press, Roderic Day

An Address to Anarchists (1920)

The New Order [L’Ordine Nuovo], 3-10 April 1920, I, n. 43.

Though Gramsci directs this harsh critique againt the anarchists of his day, communists should consider just how much of it applies to the communist movement in the West today.

Italian anarchists are very irritable because they are very conceited. Their longstanding conviction that they’re oracles of revealed revolutionary truth has become “monstrous” ever since the Socialist Party, through the influence of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik propaganda, seized upon certain fundamental points of Marxist doctrine, and began spreading them in a simple and popular way among the working masses and peasants. [1]

For some time now Italian anarchists have done nothing but vent through the self-satisfied observation “We’ve said it all along! We were right!” They never pause to ask themselves some questions: Why, having been right, have we not been followed by the majority of the Italian proletariat? Why has the majority of the Italian proletariat always followed the Socialist Party and the trade union bodies allied with the Socialist Party? (Or, why has the Italian proletariat always allowed itself to be “deceived” by the Socialist Party and the trade union bodies allied with the Socialist Party?)

These questions could only be fully answered by Italian anarchists after a great deal of humility and contrition — only after abandoning the anarchist point of view, after abandoning the point of view of absolute truth, and after acknowledging that they were “wrong even when they were right.” Only after recognizing that absolute truth is not enough to rouse the masses into action or to instill in the masses a revolutionary spirit; that, rather, a specific “truth” is required. Only after recognizing that, as far as human history is concerned, what is “true” is only what is embodied in action, what swells contemporary consciousness with passion and drive, and what expresses itself in deeply-rooted movements and real conquests on the part of the masses.

The Socialist Party has always been the party of the Italian working people. Its mistakes and its shortcomings are the mistakes and shortcomings of the Italian working people. As the material conditions of Italian life have developed, so has the class consciousness of the proletariat: the Socialist Party has distinguished itself politically more and more, it has attempted to win for itself a specific doctrine of its own. The anarchists, meanwhile, have stood still, and continue to stand still, mesmerized by their conviction that they were in the right and continue to be in the right. The Socialist Party has evolved along with the proletariat, it has evolved because the class consciousness of the proletariat has evolved. In this movement lies the truth of Marxist doctrine, which today has become the doctrine of the movement. Within this movement the Socialist Party expresses a “libertarian” characteristic, a fact that should not pass by unacknowledged by intelligent anarchists, and should give them cause for reflection. Anarchists might, upon said reflection, reach the conclusion that freedom, properly understood as the real historical development of the proletarian class, has never been embodied in libertarian groups, but has always been part of the Socialist Party.

Anarchism is not a concept proper to the working class and to the working class alone: this is precisely the reason for the permanent “triumph” and permanent “rightness” of anarchists. Anarchism is the elementary subversive position of any oppressed class, and is also the widespread conscience of any dominant class. Since every class oppression has taken form in a State, anarchism is the elementary subversive position that understands the State in and of itself as the cause of all the miseries suffered by the oppressed class. Every class, therefore, as it becomes a ruling class, realizes its own concept of anarchy — because it realizes its own freedom. The bourgeois was anarchic before his class seized political power and imposed on society the ideal State regime suitable to safeguard the capitalist mode of production. The bourgeois continues to be anarchic after his revolution because the laws of his State do not bind him: they are his laws. Therefore the bourgeois can claim to live lawlessly, he can claim that the he lives as a libertarian. The bourgeois will become an anarchist again after the proletarian revolution: he will once again become aware of the existence of a State; of the existence of laws foreign to his will, hostile to his interests, to his habits, to his freedom. He will realize that “State” is synonymous with “compulsion” because the workers’ State will take away the bourgeoisie’s freedom to exploit the proletariat, because the workers’ State will be the bulwark of a new mode of production which, as it develops, will destroy every trace of capitalist ownership and any possibility of its revival.

But the concept proper to the bourgeois class has not been anarchism, it has been the doctrine of liberalism; just as the concept proper to the working class is not anarchism, but Marxist communism. Every specific class has its own specific ideology, which belongs to that class and to no other. Anarchism has been the “fringe” position of every oppressed class, whereas Marxist communism is the specific ideology of the modern working class, and of that class alone. The revolutionary theses of Marxism become a Kabbalistic cipher if interpreted outside of the context of the modern proletariat and the capitalist mode of production (of which the modern proletariat is the consequence). The proletariat is no more an enemy of the State in and of itself than the bourgeoisie was an enemy of the State in and of itself. The bourgeoisie was an enemy of the despotic State, of aristocratic power, but looked favourably towards the bourgeois State, to liberal democracy; the proletariat is an enemy of the bourgeois State, is an enemy of power in the hands of capitalists and bankers, but looks favourably to proletarian dictatorship, to power in the hands of workers and peasants. The proletariat is in favor of the workers’ State as a stage of class struggle, the highest stage, in which the proletariat has the upper hand as an organized political force, but classes continue to exist. Society is still divided into classes, and thus the State, the proper form of every class-divided society, now in the hands of the working class and the peasantry, persists. But this State is used by the working class and peasantry to guarantee their own freedom of development, to completely eliminate the bourgeoisie from history, and to consolidate the material conditions in which class oppression can no longer be brought about.

Is it possible to reach a truce in the polemic between communists and anarchists? It’s possible for anarchist groups formed of class-conscious workers, but it’s not possible for groups of anarchist intellectuals and professional ideologues. For intellectuals, anarchism is an idol: it is the raison d’être of their actual present and future activity. As such, anarchist agitators will effectively experience the workers’ State as a “State” — as a limitation and constraint on their freedom, as the bourgeois experience it. For libertarian workers, meanwhile, anarchism is but one weapon in their struggle against the bourgeoisie. Thus, as revolutionary passion overcomes ideology, they find that the State they fight against is really only the bourgeois capitalist State, not the State as such or the idea of the State; and that the ownership they want to abolish isn’t ownership in general but rather the capitalist mode of ownership. For anarchist workers, the advent of the workers’ State will be the advent of the freedom of their class and thus also of their own personal freedom; it will unlock possibilities for new experiences and attempts at the positive implementation of proletarian ideals. The work of building the revolution will absorb them, and will make of them a vanguard of devoted and disciplined militants.

No difference between worker and worker will persist in the process of proletarian construction. Communist society cannot be built by force, or by laws and decrees: it springs spontaneously from the historical activity of the working class, which has acquired the power of initiative in industrial and agricultural production, and is led to reorganize production in new ways, under a new order. The anarchist worker will then appreciate the existence of a centralized power that permanently guarantees him the freedom he has acquired; that permits him to carry out work uninterrupted without being periodically called upon to rush to the defence of the revolution. He will then appreciate the existence of a great party composed of the better part of the proletariat, of a strongly organized and disciplined party that stimulates revolutionary creation, that sets an example of sacrifice, and by example rallies the broad working masses and leads them to more rapidly overcome the state of disheartenment and prostration to which capitalist exploitation has reduced them.

The Socialist conception of the revolutionary process is characterized by two fundamental tenets that Romain Rolland summed up in his watchword “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” The ideologues of anarchism, on the other hand, declare that they “have an interest” in repudiating the pessimism of Karl Marx’s intellect: “insofar as revolution resulting from extremes of misery or oppression would require the establishment of an authoritarian dictatorship, this could perhaps (!) lead us to State Socialism (!?), but never to anarchist Socialism.” [2] Socialist pessimism has found itself terribly confirmed by recent events: the proletariat has been plunged into the purest abyss of misery and oppression that the human mind could conceive of. [3] The ideologues of anarchism, faced with this situation, offer nothing but shallow and empty pseudo-revolutionary phraseology interwoven with tired slogans professing a foolish and vulgar optimism. The Socialists, meanwhile, counter it with vigorous organizational activity led by the best and most conscious elements of the working class. Through these vanguard elements, Socialists make every effort to prepare the broader masses to conquer its freedom, as well as the power that will enable them to protect this very freedom.

The proletarian class is at present scattered at random through the cities and the countryside, huddling around machines or bent over the soil. It works without knowing why it works, forced into servile labor by the ever-looming threat of starvation and cold. It does group together in trade unions and cooperatives, but through the necessity of economic resistance, not through spontaneous choice and not following impulses born of a free spirit. All the actions of the proletarian mass are necessarily channeled through forms established by the capitalist mode of production, established by the State power of the bourgeoisie. To expect that a mass that is reduced to such conditions of spiritual and bodily slavery should express an autonomous historical development, to expect that it should spontaneously initiate and sustain the creation of a revolution, is pure illusion on the part of ideologues. To depend only on the creative capabilities of such a mass, and to not work systematically to organize it into a great army of disciplined and conscious militants — willing to make a sacrifice, educated to act simultaneously in carrying out instructions, ready to take upon themselves actual responsibility for the revolution, ready to become the agents of the revolution — is a complete and utter betrayal of the working class, and foreshadows an as of yet unconscious counterrevolution.

Italian anarchists are irritable because they are conceited. They lose their temper easily when faced with proletarian criticism, they prefer to be adulated and flattered as champions of revolutionary ideas and of absolute theoretical coherence. We are convinced that the revolution will require, in Italy, collaboration between socialists and anarchists — frank and loyal collaboration between two political forces, focused on concrete proletarian problems. We believe it is necessary, however, that anarchists submit their traditional tactical criteria to revision, as the Socialist Party has done, and that they justify with actual reasons, concrete in time and space, their political assertions. Anarchists should, in doing so, become freer spiritually. And this plea should not seem excessive to those who claim to want freedom and nothing but freedom.

[1] The Communist Party was founded, by Gramsci and others, in 1921. — R. D. 

[2] L. Fabbri, Letter to a Socialist, Florence 1914, p. 134. 

[3] The reference is to WWI. — R. D.