Antonio Gramsci
Original publication:
Translation: Roderic Day

The Revolution against Das Kapital (1917)

Since I am personally sympathetic to Marx and Engels’ “positivist and naturalist affectations,” which Gramsci harshly criticizes here, I want to add a small preface.

I believe Gramsci’s appreciation of a Marxist spirit that prevails over dogma should be recursively applied to this essay itself (any essay, really).

This work is notable both for how Gramsci persuasively challenges prevailing cynicism regarding the ability of the Soviets to defy “stagism” in pursuit of communist ideals (which, in hindsight, is a question which demands further attention), but also, and perhaps moreso, for the open-minded and solidary approach he takes towards the judgment of fellow revolutionaries and their decisions.

The Bolshevik revolution has now definitively become part of the general revolution of the Russian people. As of two months ago the maximalists played the role of agitators against stagnation, urging the forward march not to slow down towards a premature settlement — one which would have been bourgeois in character. Now they’ve seized power, established a dictatorship, and are working out the socialist forms by means of which the revolution will be able to develop harmoniously, avoiding shocks, on the basis of the present conquests.

This revolution of the Bolsheviks upends ideology as much as reality. (Thus it does not much matter that our knowledge of the facts on the ground is limited.) It is a revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital. Capital was, in Russia, the book of the bourgeoisie, moreso than of the proletariat. Capital proposed that the rise of a bourgeoisie in Russia, of a capitalist era and a Western-type of civilization, was a prerequisite for the development of the class-consciousness of the proletariat and its eventual revolution. Reality has surpassed ideology. Reality has smashed the schema whereby Russian history was meant to unfold according to the canons of historical materialism. The Bolsheviks defy Karl Marx: they affirm with the actions they carry out, with the conquest they have achieved, that the canons of historical materialism are not as set in stone as some might have thought.

Yet these events were also in a sense fated, for even if the Bolsheviks refute some of the affirmations in Capital, they do not refute its essential, invigorating idea. They are not “Marxists” as such; they have not derived a doctrine out of the work of the Master, dogmatic and beyond questioning. They live out Marxist thought, the undying continuation of German and Italian idealism, that in Marx appeared contaminated by positivist and naturalist affectations. For this thought always identified as the determinant historical force not crude economic facts, but man and the societies of men, men who approach each other and understand each other, developing through this contact a social and collective will that understands, judges, and adapts reality to its will, until eventually this collective will becomes the conscious driving force of the economy, the shaper of objective reality, and so objective reality acquires the character of molten lava, allowing men to channel it wherever and however they will.

Marx predicted that which was predictable. He could not have foreseen the European war, or at least he could not have foreseen that this war would have the duration and the effects that it had. He could not have foreseen that this war, with its three years of unspeakable suffering and misery, would ignite the collective popular will in Russia like it did. Such a will normally needs a long process of capillary infiltration to be formed; a long series of experiences as a class. Men are lazy, they need to organize themselves, first externally in corporations and leagues, then internally in thought and will, in accord of an incessant continuity and multiplicity of external stimuli. This is why, normally, Marxism’s canons of historical criticism capture reality, ensnare it, and make it obvious and apparent. Normally, it would be through increasingly intensifying class struggle that the two classes of the capitalist world would advance history. The proletariat becomes cognizant of its misery, experiences a state of continual distress, and presses the bourgeoisie to improve its conditions. By means of struggle, it forces the bourgeoisie to innovate on production techniques and production targets, so as to satisfy at least its most urgent needs. It’s a frenetic “race to the top,” it accelerates the rhythm of production and increases the availability of useful goods for society at large. And throughout this race many fall, and render more urgent the resolve of those left behind, and the masses are always in turmoil, and from this chaos slowly emerges a coherent consciousness, and workers become aware of their power, of their ability to assume social responsibility, to become masters of their own destiny.

That’s what happens normally. When reality unfolds at a certain pace. When history unfolds as a series of incidents that are increasingly complex and full of significance, albeit comparable to each other. But in Russia the war galvanized the will of the people. Russians, after three years of unimaginable suffering, found themselves suddenly in unison. Famine was imminent, starvation could seize anybody, it threatened to slaughter tens of millions at a stroke. Thus, their wills became one. At first mechanically and then, after the first revolution, actively and spiritually.

Socialist agitation had made the Russian people aware of the hopes and aspirations of the proletariat abroad. Socialist agitation brought to life, dramatically and in an instant, the world history of the proletariat and its struggle against capitalism, the long series of efforts towards its emancipation from the shackles of servility. It awakened a new consciousness which had already borne witness to a world yet to come. Socialist agitation has shaped the social will of the Russian people. Why should they wait for the history of England to play out in Russia, for the bourgeoisie to form in Russia, for class struggle to develop, for the awakening of class consciousness to finally bring about the end of the capitalist world? The Russian people have traversed all of these experiences in thought, even if only in the thought of a minority. They have overcome these experiences. They avail themselves of these experiences to establish themselves politically today, as they will soon avail themselves of Western experiences with capitalism to put themselves on par with the most advanced economies of the world in terms of industrial output. North America is more advanced than England in capitalist terms, because in North America the Anglo-Saxons parted from a stage that England had only achieved after a long evolution. The Russian proletariat, with its socialist education, will begin its history from the most advanced stage of production which present-day England has achieved. Because of this starting point, perfected elsewhere, it will purposefully seek the economic maturity that according to Marx is a pre-condition for collectivism. The revolutionaires will themselves create the necessary conditions for the full realization of their ideal. They will create them in less time than capitalism would have taken. The socialist critique of the bourgeois system, pointing out its flaws and wastefulness, will allow the revolutionaries to do better, to avoid waste and inefficiency. It will be, in the beginning, a collectivism of misery and suffering. But the same conditions of misery and suffering would be inherited by a bourgeois regime. Capitalism cannot immediately accomplish in Russia any more than collectivism will be able to. In fact, it would accomplish less, because Russia inherits a discontented and frenzied proletariat, unwilling to bear the years of pain and bitterness that economic hardship would bring. Even from an absolute, human point of view, immediate socialism has been justified in Russia. Suffering in peacetime can only be endured so long as proletarians feel that its eventual suppression is within the reach of their will and tenacity at work.

One almost gets the impression that maximalists have been in this moment a spontaneous expression, biologically necessary, stopping Russian humanity from degrading into absolute misery, protecting Russian humanity, which embarks on the titanic task of its own regeneration, from both the ravenous wolves stalking outside and from Russia devolving into a carnage of wild beasts tearing into each other.