Antonio Gramsci
Original publication:
Translation: Pre-Prison Writings (1994), Cambridge University Press.

The State and Socialism (1919)

In May 1919, inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, sympathizers from the Italian Socialist Party established a weekly newspaper named L’Ordine Nuovo [The New Order].

The nature of contemporary conversations about the methods and goals of the socialist movement are illustrated by an exchange published in the 28 June-5 July 1919 edition of L’Ordine Nuovo, which included both “In Defense of Anarchy” by Massimo Fovel (writing under the pseudonym For Ever), as well as this rather ruthless response by Antonio Gramsci, “The State and Socialism.” [1]

Antonio Gramsci would lead the Communist Party of Italy, founded in 1921 by himself and others, from 1924 until his arrest by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist police in 1926.

We are publishing this article by For Ever, even though it is a jumble of arrant nonsense and meaningless jargon. In the opinion of For Ever, the Weimar State is a Marxist State; we at the Ordine Nuovo are State-worshippers who want the State to exist ab aeterno (For Ever evidently meant to say in aeternum); the socialist State is the same thing as State socialism; there was such a thing as a ‘Christian State’ and a ‘plebeian State under Caius Gracchus’; Saratov’s Soviet could survive without co-ordinating its production and its action of revolutionary defence with the general system of the Russian Soviets, etc. All these assertions, all this nonsensical rubbish — all presented as a defence of anarchy. Still, we are publishing For Ever’s article. For Ever is not merely an individual: he is a social type. Seen from this point of view, he must not be ignored: he must be identified, studied, discussed and put behind us. In a spirit of loyalty and friendship (friendship cannot be divorced from truth and from all the pain that truth brings with it). For Ever is a pseudo-revolutionary: anyone whose action rests entirely on overblown rhetoric, frenzied rantings and romantic enthusiasms is only a demagogue, not a revolutionary. The revolution needs men of sober mind, men who will see to it that there is bread in the shops, that the trains run on time and raw materials get to the factories; men who will arrange for the exchange of industrial and agricultural products; men who will guarantee people’s safety and personal freedom in the face of crime, who will ensure the efficient running of the whole complex of social services, and prevent the populace falling into a state of desperation and mad internecine strife. Even when it is a case of solving just one of these problems, in a village of a hundred inhabitants, rhetorical enthusiasms and unbridled ranting can only make you laugh (or cry).

But For Ever, even though he is a type, does not represent all libertarians. There is a communist libertarian, Carlo Petri, on the editorial staff of the Ordine Nuovo. With Petri, the debate is on a much higher plane: where communist libertarians like Petri are concerned, we have absolutely no choice but to work with them — they are a force of the revolution. Reading over Petri’s article in the last issue and the article of For Ever which we are publishing here (with the aim of establishing the dialectical terms of the libertarian idea: being and not-being) we have noted down the following observations. Naturally, Comrade Empedocles and Comrade Caesar, who are referred to directly by Petri, are free to respond for themselves.


Communism is embodied in the proletarian International. Communism exists only when it is international, only insofar as it is international. In this sense, the socialist, proletarian movement is against the State, because it is against the national capitalist States and against the national economies, which stem from the national State and are conditioned by it.

But if the national States will be eliminated in the Communist International, that is not to say that the State itself will be eliminated — the State understood as the concrete ‘form’ of human society. Society, as such, is a pure abstraction. Within history, in the living, flesh-and-blood reality of human civilization as it develops, society is always a system of States, a balance between States: it is a system, a balance of concrete institutions, within which society develops a consciousness of its existence and its development and without which society could not exist or develop at all.

The conquests of human civilization become permanent — become real history, and not just a superficial, passing episode — only when they are embodied in an institution and find a form in the State. The socialist idea remained a myth, an evanescent chimera, a mere whim of individual fantasy until it was embodied in the socialist proletarian movement, in the defensive and offensive institutions of the organized proletariat. It is within these institutions and by means of these institutions that the socialist idea has taken on a historical form and progressed. It is from these institutions that it has brought into being the national socialist State, which is set up and organized in such a way as to enable it to be integrated with other socialist States. Or rather, it is set up in such a way that it is only able to survive and develop by working alongside other socialist States to bring into being the Communist International, in which every individual State, every institution, every individual will achieve their full potential for life and freedom.

In this sense communism is not ‘against the State’. On the contrary, it is implacably opposed to the enemies of the State — anarchists and trade-union anarchists. It condemns their propaganda as utopian and dangerous to the proletarian revolution.

A pre-established schema has been constructed, in which socialism is a ‘gang-plank’ to anarchy. This is a stupid prejudice, an arbitrary mortgage on the future. In the dialectic of ideas, anarchy is a continuation of liberalism, rather than socialism; in the dialectic of history, anarchy will be expelled from the sphere of social reality along with liberalism. As the production of material goods becomes increasingly industrialized and the concentration of capital is matched by a corresponding concentration of the working masses, the libertarian idea has fewer and fewer adherents. The libertarian movement is still widespread in those areas still dominated by a craft economy and a feudal system of land ownership. In the industrial cities and in rural areas where agriculture has become mechanized, the anarchists have tended to disappear as a political movement, even if they survive as an ideological ferment. In this sense, the libertarian idea will have its role to play for some time yet. It will continue the liberal tradition, insofar as the liberal tradition has achieved and realized conquests for humanity which are not destined to die with capitalism.

At the present moment, in the social turmoil brought about by the war, it seems that the number of adherents to the libertarian idea has multiplied. In our view, this is through no merit of the idea itself. The phenomenon is a regressive one: new elements have migrated into the cities, devoid of any political culture, out of step with the class struggle in the complex form that the class struggle has assumed with the development of industry. The virulent word-mongering of the anarchist agitators can get an easy grip on these instinctual, primitive consciousnesses; but nothing profound or permanent can be created by pseudo-revolutionary jargon. And those who are leading the way, who are imprinting the rhythm of progress on history, who are determining the sure and unswerving advance of communist civilization are not the ‘boys on the street’, or the Lumpenproletariat, or the bohemians, or dilettantes, or long-haired, frenetic romantics. They are the massed ranks of the working classes, the iron-clad battalions of the politically conscious, disciplined proletariat.


The entire liberal tradition is anti-State.

The literature of liberalism is one long polemic against the State. The political history of capitalism is characterized by a furious and unending struggle between the citizen and the State. Parliament is the organ of this struggle; and, precisely because of this, Parliament tends to absorb all the functions of the State — in other words, to do away with the State, by depriving it of any effective power, since the aim of popular legislation is to free local institutions and individuals from any subjection to or control by central power.

This liberal action is part of the general activity of capitalism, whose aim is to ensure that the conditions for competition are as solid and dependable as possible. Competition is the fiercest enemy of the State. The idea of the International itself is liberal in origin; Marx took it over from the Cobden school and the propaganda for free trade, though he did so in a critical way. The liberals are incapable of bringing about peace and the International, because private and national property generates splits, borders, wars, national States in permanent conflict with each other.

The national State is an organ of competition. It will disappear when competition has been eliminated and a new economic practice established through the concrete experiences of socialist States.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is still a national State and a class State. The parameters of competition and the class struggle have been changed, but competition and the classes continue to exist. The dictatorship of the proletariat has to resolve the same problems as the bourgeois State, of external and internal defence. These are the concrete, objective conditions that we have to take into account. To talk and act as though the Communist International already existed, as though the period of struggle between socialist and bourgeois States, of pitiless competition between communist and capitalist national economies, was already behind us, would be a disastrous error for the proletarian revolution.

Human society is undergoing an extremely rapid process of decomposition, corresponding to the process of dissolution of the bourgeois State. The concrete, objective conditions in which the dictatorship of the proletariat will have to act will be conditions of tremendous disorder and terrifying lack of discipline. It becomes necessary to form a rock-solid socialist State, capable of arresting this dissolution and disorder as soon as possible, reshaping the social body into a coherent form and defending the revolution against external attacks and internal rebellions.

The dictatorship of the proletariat, if it is to survive and develop, must take on a markedly military character. This is why the problem of a socialist army becomes one of the most crucial; and it becomes urgently necessary, in this pre-revolutionary period, to try and get rid of the sediment of prejudice left by past socialist propaganda against all forms of bourgeois domination.

We must re-educate the proletariat, get it used to the idea that in order to eliminate the State within the International we need a kind of State which is designed to achieve this end, and that to eliminate militarism we may need a new kind of army. That means training the proletariat in the practice of dictatorship, in self-government. The difficulties to overcome will be very many and it is impossible to predict with confidence that these difficulties will remain alive and dangerous only for a brief period. But even if the proletarian State only needs to exist for a day, we should be working now to ensure that the conditions in which it will be operating will be such as to facilitate the performance of its task — the elimination of private property and the classes.

The proletariat is unschooled in the art of governing and ruling and the bourgeoisie will put up a formidable opposition to the socialist State, whether open or underground, violent or passive. Only a politically educated proletariat, which does not let the setbacks it will inevitably encounter reduce it to despair and demoralization, which remains faithful and loyal to its State in spite of the errors that may be committed by single individuals and the backwards steps that the concrete conditions of production may make necessary — only this kind of proletariat will be capable of putting the dictatorship into practice, liquidating the malign heritage of capitalism and the War and bringing the Communist International into being. And, by its very nature, the socialist State demands a loyalty and a discipline different from, even opposite to those required by the bourgeois State. Unlike the bourgeois State, which is more strong, at home and abroad, the socialist State requires an active and permanent participation by all comrades in the life of its institutions. It must also be remembered that the socialist State is a means to bring about very radical changes; and it is not possible to change a State with the ease with which one changes a government. A return to the institutions of the past will mean mass death, the unleashing of a white terror that will cause unlimited bloodshed: in the conditions created by the war, it would be in the interests of the bourgeois class to wipe out three-quarters of the working populace, in order to restore flexibility in the foodstuffs market and to put itself back into a strong position in the struggle for the easy life to which it has become accustomed. There can be no waverings of any kind, for any reason.

Right from this moment, we must awaken in ourselves and others this sense of responsibility, as keen and implacable as the executioner’s sword. The Revolution is a great and fearsome thing, not a game for dilettantes or a romantic escapade.

When it has been defeated in the class struggle, capitalism will leave an unhealthy residue of anti-state ferments — or feelings which will go by that name, because some individuals and groups will want to exempt themselves from the work and discipline necessary to the success of the Revolution.

Dear comrade Petri, let us work to avoid any bloody clashes between subversive factions, to protect the socialist State from the cruel necessity of imposing discipline and loyalty with armed force, of eliminating one part in order to save the social body from decay and corruption. Let us work together, in our cultural task, to demonstrate that the existence of the socialist State is a necessary link in the chain of tasks the proletariat must perform in the name of its emancipation, its freedom.

  1. Both articles can be found, in Italian, in pp. 61-62 of the PDF titled L’Ordine Nuovo N°1 from the archives of the Centro Gramsci di Educazione. [web]