Antonio Gramsci

The Communist Party (1920)

28 minutes | English



Since Sorel, it has become a cliché to refer to the primitive Christian communities in assessing the modern proletarian movement. It must be said at once that Sorel is in no way responsible for the small-mindedness and intellectual crudity of his Italian admirers, just as Karl Marx is not responsible for the ridiculous ideological pretensions of “Marxists.” Within the field of historical research, Sorel is an “inventor”: he cannot be imitated; he does not supply his aspiring disciples with a method that can be applied mechanically, by anyone, on any occasion, and produce intelligent findings as a result. For Sorel, as for Marxist doctrine, Christianity represents a revolution at the height of its development — a revolution, that is, that has gone as far as it can, as far as creating a new and original system of moral, legal, philosophical and artistic relations. To assume these developments as an ideological blueprint for every revolution is a crude and unintelligent travesty of Sorel’s historical intuitions. All it can give rise to is a series of historical researches on the “germs” of proletarian culture that we must be able to detect, if it is true (as it is for Sorel) that the proletarian revolution is immanent in modern industrial society and if it is true that from this revolution, as well, there will result a new set of rules for living and a wholly new system of relations, characteristic of the revolutionary class. What significance can be attached, then, to the assertion that, in contrast with the early Christans, the workers are not chaste, or sober, or very original in their lifestyle? Leaving to one side the kind of amateurish generalization that turns all “Turinese metal-workers” into a mob of brutes, who eat their roast chicken every day and get drunk in brothels at night, who neglect their families and look to the cinemas and an aping of bourgeois manners to satisfy their ideals of beauty and morality — leaving to one side this kind of amateurish and puerile generalization, the statement can still in no way become the premise for a historical judgement. It is equivalent, in historical terms, to saying that, since modern Christians eat well, use prostitutes, get drunk, give false testimony, commit adultery, etc., etc., it must be a myth that ascetics, saints and martyrs ever existed. Every historical phenomenon, in other words, must be studied for its own peculiar characteristics, in the context of contemporary realities, as a development of the freedom that manifests itself in ends, institutions and forms that absolutely cannot be confused or compared (except metaphorically) with the ends, institutions and forms of historical phenomena in the past.

Every revolution that, like the Christian and the communist, comes about and can only come about through a stirring of the vast popular masses at their deepest level, cannot do other than break down and destroy the entire existing system of social organization. Who can imagine and foresee what the immediate consequences will be when the endless hordes who are currently deprived of will or power finally make their entry into the arena of historical creation and destruction? Because they have never before experienced this “will” and this “power,” they will expect to see their newly gained will and power manifested in every public and private act. They will find the whole existing world mysteriously alien and will want to destroy it from the roots. But precisely because of the sheer immensity of the revolution, its character of unpredictability and boundless freedom, who would dare to hazard so much as a single definitive hypothesis on what sentiments, what passions, what initiatives, what virtues will be forged in this glowing furnace? Everything that exists at present, everything we see around us today that lies outside the scope of our own will and force of character — what changes will it all undergo? Will not every single day lived at this level of intensity be a revolution in itself? Will not every change that takes place in individual consciousness — occurring, as it will, simultaneously across the whole mass of the people — have creative repercussions which are quite unimaginable?

Nothing can be predicted, in the realm of morality and sentiment, starting from what can be observed at present. Only one sentiment — which has now become a constant, a distinguishing feature of the working class — can be registered already: the sentiment of solidarity. But the intensity and strength of this sentiment can be counted on to sustain the will of resistance and self-sacrifice only for that period of time that even the people’s meagre capacity for historical prediction can estimate, more or less accurately. They cannot be counted on, and thus relied on to sustain the historical will during the period of revolutionary creation and building of the new society, when it will be impossible to set a limit on how long resistance and sacrifice be called for. Because, by then, the enemy to be fought and defeated will no longer be outside the proletariat — a defined and manageable external physical presence. It will be within the proletariat itself; in its ignorance, its sluggishness, its ponderous slowness in grasping new insights. The dialectic of the class struggle will have become internalized and in every conscience the newly created man will have to be on his guard every moment against the bourgeois lying in ambush. Because of this the workers’ trade union, the body that realizes proletarian solidarity in practice and disciplines it, cannot serve as the model and the basis for predictions concerning the future of civilization. The trade union is lacking in elements necessary to encourage the development of freedom. It is destined to undergo radical changes as a consequence of general developments. It is determined, not determining.

The proletarian movement, in its present phase, is striving to bring about a revolution in the way in which material things and physical forces are organized. Its distinguishing features cannot be the sentiments and passions that are distributed throughout the masses, that sustain the will of the masses. The distinguishing features of the proletarian revolution can only be looked for in the party of the working class, the Communist Party, which owes its existence and development to its disciplined organization of the will to form a State, the will to give a new, proletarian order to the existing arrangement of physical forces and to lay the foundations of popular liberty.

At the present moment, the Communist Party is the only institution that may be seriously compared with the religious communities of primitive Christianity. To the exent that the Party already exists on an international scale, one can hazard a comparison, and establish a scale of criteria for judging between the militants for the City of God and the militants for the City of Man. The communist is certainly not inferior to the Christian in the days of the catacombs. On the contrary! The ineffable end which Christianity promised to its champions is in its evocative mysteriousness, ample justification for heroism, saintliness, a thirst for martyrdom. There is no need for the great human resources of character and will to come into play in order to awaken a spirit of sacrifice in someone who believes in a heavenly reward and eternal bliss. The communist worker who, week after week, month after month, year after year, without asking for anything in return, follows up his eight hours work at the factory with eight hours work for the Party or the union or the co-operative — from the point of view of human history, this communist worker is greater than the slave or artisan who risked everything to make it to his secret prayer meeting. Similarly, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht are greater than the greatest of Christian saints. Precisely because what they are fighting for is something concrete, human, defined, the warriors of the working class are greater than the warriors of God. The moral forces that sustain their will are the more infinite the more finite the end their will is directed towards.

How vast an expansion will come about in the sentiments of the worker who spends eight hours a day bending over his machine, repeating the ritual gestures of his job, as monotonous as the clicking of a circle of rosary beads, when he becomes a “master” and the measure of all social values? Is it not a miracle that the worker can still manage to think at all when he is reduced to working away without understanding the how and why of what he is doing? This miracle of the worker who, day after day, gains in spiritual autonomy and the freedom to create within the realm of ideas, struggling against his weariness and boredom, against the monotony of a job that tends to mechanize and hence to stifle his inner life — this miracle is being organized in the Communist Party, in the will to struggle and the revolutionary creativity that are expressed in the Communist Party.

The worker in the factory merely executes given tasks. He does not follow through the overall process of work and production. He is not a point that moves to create a line: he is a pin stuck in a particular place and the line is made up of the sequence of pins that have been set up by an alien will for its ends. The worker tends to carry over this way of being into all areas of his life: he readily adapts, in everything, to being a simple material executor, a “mass” guided by a will that is alien to his own. He is intellectually lazy, he cannot see and does not wish to see beyond his immediate horizon, and so he lacks any reliable criterion for choosing his leaders and he lets himself be easily swayed by promises. He wants to believe he can get what he wants without any great effort on his part and without having to think too much. The Communist Party is the instrument and the historical form of the process of inner liberation through which the worker is transformed from executor to initiator, from mass to leader and guide, from pure brawn to a brain and a will. The founding of the Communist Party gives a glimpse of that seed of liberty that germinate and grow to its full extent when the workers’ State has prepared the necessary ground. The slave or artisan of the classical world came to know himself and realized his own liberation when he joined a Christian community, where he felt himself to be equal, a brother, because all were sons of the same father. It is just the same for the worker, when he joins the Communist Party, where he collaborates in “discovering” and “inventing” new ways of life, where he collaborates “consciously” in the world’s activity; where he thinks, looks ahead, has a responsibility; where he organizes, rather than simply being organized; where he feels himself to be part of a vanguard that runs ahead pulling the whole popular mass along with it.

Even in purely organizational terms, the Communist Party has shown itself to be the particular form of the proletarian revolution. No previous revolution involved political parties: they were born after the bourgeois revolution and they have entered their decline on the terrain of parliamentary democracy. Here, as elsewhere, there is confirmation of the idea that capitalism throws up forces that it then cannot succeed in keeping under control. The democratic parties served to show up able politicians and secure their success at the polls. Today the men in government are imposed by the banks, the great newspapers, the industrial confederations; the parties are crumbling into a multitude of personal cliques. The Communist Party, arising out of the ashes of the socialist parties, is repudiating its democratic and parliamentary roots and revealing its essential characteristics which are completely new within history. The Russian Revolution is a revolution brought about by men who were organized by the Communist Party — men who forged themselves a new personality within the Party, developed new sentiments and realized a moral life which is destined to become the universal consciousness and the ultimate end of all men.


Political parties are the reflection and the nomenclature of the social classes. They emerge, develop, decline and renew themselves as the various strata of the warring social classes undergo changes of genuine historical significance, as they acquire a new and clearer awareness of themselves and their own interests. What has become characteristic of the present historical period, as a consequence of the imperialist war, which profoundly altered the structure of the national and international apparatus of production and exchange, is the rapidity of the process by which the traditional parliamentary parties, which emerged on the terrain of liberal democracy, are now falling apart and new political organizations are rising up alongside them. This general process obeys an implacable inner logic of its own, which is shown up in the disintegration of the old classes and groupings and in the rapid shifts in the position of whole strata of the population throughout the entire territory of the State and often throughout the entire territory under capitalist domination.

Even those social classes which historically have been the slowest and most sluggish in differentiating themselves, like the peasant class, have not escaped the chemical action of the reagents dissolving the body of society. On the contrary, it seems as though the slower and more sluggish these classes have been in the past, the more eager they are now to race on to the ultimate consequences in the dialectic of the class struggle — civil war and the violation of economic relations. In Italy, we have seen a powerful party of the rural class, the Partito Popolare, emerging as if from nowhere, in the space of two years. When it was set up, this party claimed to represent the economic interests and political aspirations of all the different social strata of rural Italy, from the baron with his latifondi, [1] to the medium-sized landowner, from the small landholder to the tenant farmer, from the sharecropper to the penniless peasant. We have seen the Partito Popolare win almost a hundred seats in parliament with bloc lists completely dominated by the representatives of the barons, the great forest owners and the owners of large and medium-sized estates — a tiny minority of the rural population. We have seen internal struggles between tendencies in the Partito Popolare breaking out almost immediately and quickly becoming endemic — a reflection of the process of differentiation that was taking place in the original electoral body. The great masses of small landowners and peasants were no longer content to be the passive infantry-mass enabling the medium-sized and larger landowners to secure their interests. Under their energetic pressure, the Partito Popolare split into a right, a left and a centre, and we have seen the extreme left of the popolari, under pressure from the poorest peasants, adapting a revolutionary stance and entering into competition with the socialist party, which has also become the representative of the vast peasant masses. We are already witnessing the break-up of the Partito Popolare, whose parliamentary wing and Central Committee no longer represent the interests and the newly acquired self-consciousness of their mass electorate or the forces organized in the white unions. [2] These are now represented by the extremists who, not wanting to lose control of them and unable to delude them with legal action in Parliament, are forced to resort to violent struggle and to invoking new political institutions of government.

The same process of rapid organization and even more rapid dissolution has also been apparent in the other political current that claimed to represent the interests of the peasants: the war veterans’ association. It is a reflection of the tremendous internal crisis that is racking the whole of rural Italy, and that reveals itself in the massive strikes in the centre and the north, in the take-over and distribution of the great latifondi of Apulia and in the appearance of hundreds and thousands of armed peasants in the towns of Sicily.

This profound stirring of the peasant classes is shaking the framework of the democratic parliamentary state to its very foundations. Capitalism, as a political force, is being reduced to corporate associations of factory owners. It no longer possesses a political party whose ideology also extends to the petit bourgeois strata in the cities and the countryside and so ensures the survival of a broadly based legal state. In fact, capitalism has been reduced to relying for its political representation on the major newspapers (a print-run of 400,000, a thousand electors) and the Senate, which is immune, as an institution, from the actions and reactions of the great popular masses, but which also lacks authority and prestige in the country. Because of this, the political power of capitalism is tending to become even more closely allied with the upper ranks of the military — with the Royal Guard and the swarm of adventurers who have emerged since the Armistice, aspiring, every one of them, to become the Kornilov or the Bonaparte of Italy. The political power of capitalism can today only find expression in a military coup d’état and an attempt to impose a rigid national dictatorship to drive the brutalized Italian masses into the economy by sacking neighbouring countries sword in hand.

With the bourgeoisie worn down and exhausted as a ruling class, with capitalism exhausted as a mode of production and exchange, with the peasant class failing to provide a unified political force capable of forging a State, the working class is being ineluctably summoned by history to take upon itself the responsibilities of a ruling class. Only the proletariat is capable of creating a strong state that can make itself respected, because the proletariat has, in communism, a programme of economic reconstruction that finds its necessary premises and conditions in the phase of development reached by capitalism in the 1914-18 Imperialist War. Only the proletariat, through its creation of a new organ of public authority, the system of Soviets, can give dynamic expression to the fluid and incandescent mass of workers and restore order amid the general upheaval of the productive forces. It is natural and historically justified that it should be precisely in a period such as this that the problem of forming a Communist Party should arise — a party representing a proletarian vanguard which has a precise consciousness of its historical mission, which will establish the new social order and be both initiator and protagonist of the new and unprecedented historical period.

Even the traditional political party of the Italian working class, the Socialist Party, has not escaped the process of decomposition of all forms of association, this process which is characteristic of the period we are living through. This has been the colossal historical error of the men who have been in charge of the controlling organs of our association from the outbreak of the World War to the present day — believing that they could preserve the old structure of the party when it was crumbling from within. In fact, the Italian Socialist Party, if you look at its traditions, at the historical origins of the currents it is made up from, at its pact, tacit or explicit with the General Confederation of Labour (a pact which has the effect, in all its congresses, Councils and deliberative assemblies, of giving an unwarranted power and influence to trade-union bureaucrats), at the unlimited autonomy conceded to its parliamentary group (which gives deputies, too, a power and influence at congresses, Councils and high-ranking discussions which is similar to that of the union bureaucrats and equally unjustified) — if you look at all these things, the Italian Socialist Party is not different at all from the British Labour Party; it is revolutionary only where the general statements contained in its programme are concerned. It is a conglomeration of parties: when it moves, it cannot help but move sluggishly and slowly. It runs the permanent risk of becoming an easy prey for adventurers, careerists and ambitious men without integrity or political capability. With its heterogeneous character, with the endless snags in its machinery, worn and sabotaged as it is by serve-padrone, [3] it can never be in a position to take upon itself the burden of and responsibility for the revolutionary initiatives and actions demanded of it by the ceaseless pressure of events. Here we have the explanation for the historical paradox that, in Italy, it is the masses who propel and “educate” the party of the working class and not the Party which guides and educates the masses.

The Socialist Party claims to be the champion of Marxist doctrines. One would therefore expect the Party to possess in these doctrines, a compass to steer it through the confusion of events. One would expect it to have that capacity for historical foresight that characterizes the intelligent followers of Marxist dialect. One would expect it to possess a general plan of action, based on this historical foresight and to be in a position to issue clear and precise orders to the working class, engaged in its struggle. But instead, the Socialist Party, the champion of Marxism in Italy — just like the Partito Popolare, the party which represents the most backward classes in the Italian population — is exposed to all the pressures of the masses and it shifts and alters its position following the shifts and alterations of the masses. This Socialist Party, which proclaims itself to be the guide and educator of the masses, is in fact nothing more than a wretched clerk, recording the way in which the masses are operating of their own accord. This poor Socialist Party, which proclaims itself to be at the head of the working class, is nothing more than the baggage-train of the proletarian army.

If this strange behaviour on the part of the Socialist Party, this bizarre state that the party of the working class finds itself in, has not yet led to a catastrophe, it is because there exist in the ranks of the working class — in the urban Party sections, in the unions, in the factories, in the villages — energetic groups of communists who are conscious of their historical role, energetic and shrewd in their actions, well equipped to guide and educate the proletarian masses around them. It is because there exists, at the heart of the Socialist Party, a potential Communist Party, which only needs an explicit organization — a centralization, a discipline of its own in order to be able to develop rapidly, to take over and renew the membership of the party of the working class and to give a new direction to the Confederation of Labour and the co-operative movement.

The immediate problem in this period — after the metal-workers’ struggle and before the congress in which the party is going to have to adopt a serious and precisely defined attitude to the Communist International — is precisely that of how to organize and centralize these communist forces which already exist and are in operation. The Socialist Party is crumbling at a rate of knots, falling further into decay by the moment. In a very short space of time, the tendencies in the Party have rearranged themselves completely. Faced with the responsibilities of historical action and the obligations the party accepted by joining the Communist International, individuals and groups within it have become confused and shifted their ground. Centrist and opportunist equivocation has captured a section of the Party’s leadership, spreading confusion and doubt in the sections. Amid this general falling-off of conscience, will and faith, this tempest of baseness, cowardice and defeatism, the duty of communists is to form tight-knit groups, to rally and stand at the ready for the orders which will come. Acting on the basis of the theses approved by the Second Congress of the Third International, and on the basis of steadfast discipline to the supreme authority of the worldwide workers’ movement, sincere and dedicated communists must carry out the preparatory work, which is needed to set up, at the earliest possible opportunity, the communist fraction of the Italian Socialist Party, which must then, at the Florence Congress, for the good name of the Italian proletariat, become, in name and in fact, the Communist Party of Italy, a section of the Third Communist International. The communist fraction must have an organic and powerfully centralized leadership apparatus. It must have its own disciplined branches wherever the proletariat works, assembles and struggles and a whole range of services and organs for supervision, activity and propaganda, which will enable it to function and develop right from the first as a real party.

After saving the working class from disaster in the metal-workers’ strike through their energy and spirit of initiative, the communists must now follow through their attitudes and action to their logical conclusion. They must save (by reconstructing it) the primordial fabric of the party of the working class. They must give the Italian proletariat a Communist Party which is capable of organizing the workers’ State and the conditions needed to bring about a communist society.

[1] Large, often under-cultivated landed estates, characteristic of southern Italy. 

[2] The Catholic trade unions, as opposed to the socialist (“red”) unions. 

[3] Maid who is really the mistress of house.