Antonio Gramsci 1916

Men or Machines?

First published: in Avanti!, 24 December 1916;
Translated: by Natalie Campbell

The short discussion which took place in the last sitting of council, between our comrades and representatives of the majority, on the subject of plans for professional training, is worthy of comment, even if it is somewhat brief; a summary. The remarks of our comrade Zini ('when it comes to training for the people, humanistic and occupational currents are still in conflict. We need to able to combine them, but we must not forget that behind the worker there is still a man there, and we should not remove from him the possibility of broadening the horizons of his spirit, just so that we can enslave him right away; make him machine’) and the protests of councillor Sincero against philosophy (philosophy will find opponents, particularly when it makes statements which will affect certain interests) are not just simply, periods of conflict which are bound to happen from time to time; they are important clashes between people who uphold different fundamental principles.

  1. Our party has still not decided upon a firm educational programme which differs from those traditional ones. Up until now we have been happy to continue under one general principle; the need for knowledge, whether it’s at a primary, secondary or even higher level. This is the principle that we have expounded, advocated with force and energy. We can be sure that the drop in the illiteracy rate in Italy is not so much down to laws for compulsory education, but spiritual life itself; to the awareness of certain specific needs in that aspect of life, which socialist propaganda knew how to awaken in the Italian proletariat. But that’s all we've done. Schools in our country have remained as, in essence, bourgeois institutions, in the worst sense of the word. Middle and secondary schools, which belong to the state, and therefore, are supported through the people’s taxes, through taxes which are also paid by the proletariat, cannot be attended by anyone other than the young sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, who enjoy the economic independence necessary to be able to carry out their studies to the highest standard. A child from the proletariat, even if he is intelligent and in possession of all the abilities needed to become a knowledgeable man, is forced to waste his talent on other pursuits, to become a rebel, or to educate himself; that is to say (apart from some notable exceptions), he is forced to become a half man, a man who has not been able to give all he could have, if he had been completed by and made stronger through the discipline that school offers. Knowledge is a privilege. Schooling is a privilege. And we don’t want it to be that way. All young people should be equal in terms of knowledge. The State shouldn’t be paying for the schooling of imbeciles and those who are just plain mediocre, merely because they are children of the wealthy; equally it shouldn’t be excluding those who are intelligent and more than capable, just because they're the children of the proletariat. Middle and secondary schools should be for those who have shown themselves to be worthy. If it is in general interest that they exist, even if they're supported and ruled by the State, it is also in general interest that all those who are intelligent enough should have access to them, whatever their economic background. The sacrifice of the collective is only justified if it is for the benefit of those who really deserve it. The sacrifice of the collective should be made so as to give economic independence to those who are talented, so that they can dedicate their time completely to study, so that they can study in earnest.
  2. The proletariat are excluded from middle and secondary schools because of current societal conditions which mean that there is a division of labour among men, in a most unnatural manner; it is not based on individual ability and therefore, devastates and corrupts production. This class has to fall back on subsidiary schools; those of a technical and professional orientation. These technical schools were established on a democratic basis by the Casati ministry, yet, because of the antidemocratic provisions of the State budget, they have gone through a transformation which has destroyed their very essence. Now they have mostly become accessories to the classical schools, an innocent outlet for the petty-bourgeoisie obsession with finding a job. The admission fees which are constantly on the rise, and the practical possibilities which they offer for life, have made these schools too somewhat of a privilege. The majority of the proletariat is excluded from them, automatically, because of the uncertain, random life that the wage-earner is forced to lead; a life which does not go hand in hand with following a course of study.
  3. The proletariat needs a school which is neutral. A school which gives children the possibility of educating themselves, of becoming men, of acquiring the general knowledge needed to develop their individual character. A humanistic school then, as the ancients and the most recent men of the Renaissance intended it. A school which doesn’t mortgage the child’s future or constrain his will, his intelligence, his conscience, so as to set him off on the road with a fixed destination. A school of liberty and free initiative and not a school of subjugation, where people are quasi mechanised. Even the children of the proletariat should have the power of choosing from all the possibilities available, all areas should be free to them so they can fulfil their own individual purpose in the best way possible, and consequently in the most productive way possible, not only for themselves but for the rest of the society. Vocational schools should not become a breeding ground for monsters, dryly educated for a job, without being given broad ideas, broad knowledge, without any spirit at all; just an accurate eye and a steady hand. Through professional education too, men can be allowed to break out of their childhood; as long as this education is just that; educational, not merely informative, not just the study of manual procedures. Councillor Sincero, who is an industrialist, merely shows himself to be of the harsh bourgeoisie when he protests so against philosophy.

Certainly, for the harsh bourgeois industrialists, it might be more useful to have worker-machines instead of worker-men. Yet the sacrifices which society makes in order for progress, in order for the best, most perfect men to fly from its nest, who themselves will help to improve things even further, should see a wealth of returns which benefit the whole of society, not just one type of person, or class.

It’s a problem of rights and of power. And the proletariat should be on alert, so it doesn’t suffer even more oppression, as it has suffered so much already.