From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader

Against the Current, No. 64, September/October 1996

Lisa Frank

From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics
Historical Overview and Selection by Paul Le Blanc
Humanities Press, 1996, 22.50 paper

FOR MANY YEARS I worked for a small, poor, left-wing publishing firm. After several rounds of hard market discipline, we developed what we called the Reader Rule: no season with more than one anthology and no two back-to-back.

The Reader Rule represented a reckoning with the ironies and constraints of capitalist culture. From a naive producer’s perspective, the perfect book would eliminate all input costs. Imagine, then, a selection of works taken largely from the public domain, chosen, arranged and introduced by an accomplished interpreter of the material, who himself works for justice, not money. No research, editing or permissions costs, not even an advance. Should make a bundle, right?

Alas, by a curious but iron law of the market, a child gestated outside the commodity circuit cannot re-enter it at birth. The perfect reader is perfectly unmarketable. Imagine now the distributors, the retailers, the reviewers. A century-old essay can hardly titillate; why reintroduce it?

This material can be had in the library for free, all the Marxists already own it; who’s gonna buy it? Somebody, a very smart somebody, stapled some essays together, in a very interesting order. Where’s the story in that? Too many perfect anthologies and your ship is sunk.

Of course, without such readers, Marxism is sunk. Paul Le Blanc’s From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics, while not wholly perfect, is a magnificent anti-capitalist gesture. It is an act of public revision, presupposing not just a Marxist past (those century-old essays), but a viable and vibrant Marxist future (that audience which sees the value of, indeed the necessity of, actively rearranging traditions and engaging them afresh).

Le Blanc’s purpose in making this book is simple. He is out to reconstruct the tradition of revolutionary Marxism. Astonishingly if tellingly, From Marx to Gramsci is the first reader in English whose criteriology is rooted in Marxism’s political purpose, in Marxism’s strategic perspective and tactical orientation.

This doesn’t mean that the volume is an assemblage of admonitions, a couple of good recipes for smashed state, a reminder to beware social democrats. Neither is it a cry in the wilderness, please somebody invent a Marxism that can change the world.

It is, instead, a powerful and often subtle argument about where to find a usable Marxism, conducted first in a stunningly pellucid hundred-page introduction, and then joined by some comrades (Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci) in the Reader proper.

Summing Up Marxism’s Experience

The contents are strategically selected classics, beginning with sections of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, Capital and Marx’s Inaugural Address of the First International, Luxemburg’s Reform and Revolution, Mass Strike, Political Party and the Trade Unions, Junius Pamphlet and her writing on women’s liberation, as well as Lenin’s Urgent Tasks of Our movement, The state, important passages on the working class and the right of nations to self-determination, and the Letters From Afar, which were so crucial in reorienting Lenin’s own Bolshevik Party In the early months of 1917.

The volume continues with selections from Trotsky, notably The Revolution Betrayed, the Transitional Program, and writings on the workers’ movements in Russia and Germany, and concludes with writings of Gramsci from The Modern Prince and Prison Notebooks as well as the meaning of dialectics, leadership and the “organic capacities of the working class.”

In a variety of settings and political periods, the writings of these revolutionaries contend that the working class can and must organize itself in a class movement contend for power, and yes—that it can ultimately win.

For Le Blanc, authentic Marxism is just this tradition of argument in action, to It is the practical experience, analytical method and intelligent labor of men and women who themselves (as Le Blanc argues in the Preface) thought Marxism was this sort of thing and proved they were right (or at least weren’t wrong).

Put so abstractly, there aren’t too many Marxists who’d disagree. But anyone who has spent any time in and around actually existing Marxism knows that choosing and interpreting ancestors is a profoundly political act. Le Blanc’s revision of authentic Marxism won’t accommodate everyone. Though he wishes to avoid “sterile debate about who really is a Marxist,” he doesn’t shy away from litigation over the estate.

Le Blanc’s tidy review of essentials, his engaging precis of socialist history, his glosses on selections, his biographical notes and exhaustive bibliographical annotations are the minutes of a meeting in which the ancestors announce in no uncertain terms that revolutionary Marxism is not about correct doctrine or neat explanatory tools but is rather about building revolutionary relationships.

They say that while regroupment is necessary, and in this conjuncture urgent, we are able to show that some dogs don’t hunt. Reformism (pressure the capitalist parties) is, as always, out. Sectarianism (the party holds the theory, then recruits the cadre) is out. Stalinism and Maoism (the party defends socialism in one country, then recruits the cadre) are out. Academicism Marx was right, who needs a party?) is out.

Left standing are questioning but well-oriented Marxists. Comrades (Marx amongst them) who know, or better, would be prepared to argue, that while the fundamentals will bear up under scrutiny, the current conduct of the left will not. Who would want to clarify (Luxemburg amongst them) that without democracy there can be no socialism. Who struggle to relearn (Lenin amongst them) that the vanguard does not precede the movement but is found and formed in its development. Who pursue the thesis (Trotsky amongst them) that revolution is of necessity transnational. And who care to recall (Gramsci amongst them) that when the going gets tough, the tough start thinking.

From Marx to Gramsci is a warm invitation to an as yet unscheduled party. Today’s self-identified Marxists are not the only invitees. Expect to meet representatives of the proletariat with roots in other (and no more incomplete) working class and democratic traditions.

Le Blanc can count me in. I’m grateful for the inclusion of Luxemburg, and particularly Luxemburg on women’s suffrage. For Trotsky’s transitional program. For a Gramsci who has chatted with his Russian forebears and would never be so stupid as to counterpose simply wars of attrition and frontal assaults, state and civil society, eastern authoritarianism and western democracy.

I’d quarrel with Le Blanc about, say, the essential status of a mode of production narrative. But I’d quarrel in the spirit of the work, on the grounds that Le Blanc hasn’t yet understood those comrades, often not from these parts, who must insist that Marxism move beyond that.

I’m confident that we’d agree that any such dispute is, and should be read as, an index of internationalist disarray, of the urgent need for practical dialogue, of our poor knowledge of other dialogues already underway, of the extreme incompleteness of his (or any) family tree in our presocialist times.

I’d try to match his humility, clarity, and sheer good sense.

That’s all a way of saying that I’m in accord with Le Blanc’s strategic orientation and figure that our ancestors would be too: the current state of Marxism suggests the tactical need for a collective reassessment of revolutionary fundamentals. From Marx to Gramsci can’t conjure that collective. But it is an important platform and a necessary resource, unavailable in our public libraries, our existing anthologies, or for that matter our party literatures.

Acknowledging his own debts “to the many translators, publishers, teachers and activists who made his book possible” Le Blanc writes, “It seems fitting that works seeking to advance human freedom through the struggle to achieve collective ownership should come to us through so rich a collective process.”

Look forward to the advent of a people’s literature. In the meantime, meet Le Blanc on the outskirts of commodity culture. Buy this book. Read it. Reply.

ATC 64, September-October 1996