Antonio Gramsci 1919

Workers and peasants

First Published: L'Ordine Nuovo, 2 August 1919;
Translated: by Michael Carley.

During the war and for reasons for war, the Italian state assumed among its responsibilities the regulation of production and of distribution of material goods. It realized a type of _trust_ of industry and commerce, a form of concentration of the means of production and exchange and an equalization of the conditions of exploitation of the proletarian and semiproletarian masses which brought about revolutionary effects. It is not possible to understand the essential character of the present period without taking account of these phenomena and of the psychological consequences produced by them.

In countries which are still capitalistically backward such as Russia, Italy, France and Spain, there exists a sharp separation between the city and the country, between workers and peasants. In agriculture there survive genuinely feudal economic forms, and a corresponding psychology. The idea of the modern liberal-capitalistic state is still unknown; economic and political institutions are not conceived as historical categories, which have had a beginning, have undergone a process of development, and which can dissolve, after creating the conditions for superior forms of social cohabitation: they are conceived instead as natural categories, perpetual, irreducible. In reality large ownership has remained outside free competition: and the modern state has respected its feudal essence, developing juridical formulae such as holding in trust, which maintain in fact the existence and privileges of the feudal regime. The mentality of the peasant has thus remained that of the servant of the soil, who revolts violently against the “bosses” on particular occasions, but is incapable of thinking himself part of a collective (the nation for the owners and the class for the proletarians) and of developing systematic action and permanent revolt to change the economic and political relations of social existence.

The psychology of the peasants was, in such conditions, uncontrollable; real feelings remained hidden, implicated and confused in a system of defence against exploitations, merely egotistical, without logical continuity, materialized in sham indifference and false servility. The class struggle was mixed up with banditry, blackmail, burning forests, laming livestock, kidnapping women and children, with attacks on the municipality: it was a form of basic terrorism, without steady and effective consequences. Objectively then the psychology of the peasant was reduced to a tiny sum of primordial feelings caused by the social conditions created by the parliamentary-democratic state: the peasant was left completely at the mercy of the landowners and of their sycophants and corrupt public officials, and the main worry in their lives was to defend themselves physically against unexpected natural disasters, against the abuses and barbaric cruelty of the landowners and public officials. The peasant has always lived outside the domain of the law, without a legal personality, without moral individuality: he has remained an anarchic element, the independent atom in a chaotic tumult, held back only by fear of the carabiniere and of the devil. He did not understand discipline; patient and tenacious in the individual struggle to take scarce and meagre fruits from nature, capable of great sacrifice in family life, he was impatient and wildly violent in the class struggle, incapable of posing a general aim and of pursuing it with perseverance and systematic struggle.

Four years of the trench and of bloodshed have radically changed the psychology of the peasants. This change is especially clear in Russia and is one of the essential conditions of the revolution. That which was not brought about by industrialism with its normal process of development, has been brought about by the war. The war forced the capitalistically most backward nations, those least equipped with mechanical means, to enlist the available men, to oppose great masses of living flesh to the war machines of the central empires. For Russia the war meant the bringing together of individuals previously scattered in an utterly vast territory, it meant a concentration of humans which lasted uninterrupted for years and years of sacrifice, with the always immediate danger of death, under an equal and equally ferocious discipline: the psychological effects of enduring the same conditions of collective life for such time have been immense and rich in unforeseen consequences.

Individual egotistical instincts have become blurred, a common unitary spirit has been formed, feelings have been equalized, a habit of social discipline has been formed: the peasants have conceived the state in its complex greatness, in its unmeasured power, in its complicated construction. They have conceived the world, no longer as an indefinitely large thing like the universe and tightly confined like the village churchtower, but in its concreteness of states and peoples, of social strengths and weaknesses, of armies and machines, of wealths and poverties. Links of solidarity have been formed which otherwise only decades and decades of historical experience and intermittent struggles would have caused; in four years, in the mud and the blood of the trenches, a spiritual world emerged eager to affirm itself in permanent and dynamic social forms and institutions.

Thus were born on the Russian front the councils of military delegates, thus the peasant soldiers could actively participate in the life of the Soviets of Petrograd and Moscow, and of the other Russian industrial centres, and acquired consciousness of the unity of the working class; thus it happened that, as the Russian army demobilized and the soldiers returned to their places of work, the whole territory of the Empire, from the Vistula to the Pacific, became covered in a tight network of local Councils, basic organs of state reconstruction of the Russian people. On this new psychology is founded the communist propaganda transmitted from the industrial cities and are founded the social hierarchies freely promoted and accepted through the experiences of collective revolutionary life.

The historical conditions in Italy were not and are not very different from those in Russia. The problem of the unification of the masses of workers and peasants is presented in the same terms: it will happen in the practice of the socialist state and it will be founded on the new psychology of common life in the trench.

Italian agriculture must radically transform its operations to exit from the crisis caused by the war. The destruction of livestock forces the introduction of machines, forces a rapid passage to an industrial culture centred on the availability of technical institutions well equipped with machinery. But such a transformation cannot happen in a regime of private property without causing a disaster: it is necessary that it happen in a socialist state, in the interests of the peasants and workers, associating in communist work units. The introduction of machines into the process of production has always caused profound crises of unemployment, only slowly overcome by the elasticity of the labour market. Today the conditions of work are radically changed: agricultural unemployment has already become an irresolvable problem because of the effective impossibility of emigration: the industrial transformation of agriculture can only happen with the consent of poor peasants, through a dictatorship of the proletariat embodied in councils of industrial workers and poor peasants.

The factory workers and poor peasants are the two energies of the proletarian revolution. For them especially communism represents an existential necessity: its coming means life and liberty, the continuation of private property means the inherent danger of being annihilated, of losing everything up to physical life. They are the irreducible element, the continuation of revolutionary enthusiasm, the iron will to refuse compromises, to advance implacably to a full realization, without being demoralized by partial and transitory mishaps, without having illusions from easy successes.

They are the backbone of the revolution, the iron battalions of the proletarian army which advances, overturning obstacles at a blow or laying siege to them with its human waves which shatter, corrode with patient work, with tireless sacrifice. Communism is their culture, it is the system of historical conditions in which they will acquire a personality, a dignity, a culture, through which they will become the creative spirit of progress and beauty.

Any revolutionary work has a chance of success only in so far as it founds itself on the necessities of their life and on the demands of their culture. This must be understood by the leaders of the proletarian and socialist movement. And it is necessary that they understand how important is the problem of giving the implacable force of the revolution the form suited to its general psychology.

In the backward conditions of the capitalist economy of before the war, it was not possible to form and develop wide and deep peasant organizations, in which the workers in the fields could educate themselves in an organic conception of the class struggle and in the permanent discipline necessary for the reconstruction of the state after the capitalist catastrophe.

The spiritual conquests realized during the war, the communist experiences accumulated in four years of bloodshed, undergone collectively, standing shoulder to shoulder in the mud- and blood-filled trenches, may be lost if we do not manage to bring all these individuals into organs of new collective life, in the functioning and practice of which the conquests can solidify, the experiences can develop, integrate, be consciously directed to the development of a concrete historical aim. Thus organized the peasants will become an element of order and progress; abandoned to themselves, in the impossibility of developing systematic and disciplined action, they will become a formless mass, a chaotic disorder of passions embittered to the point of barbarities more cruel than the unheard sufferings which are ever more shockingly occurring.

The communist revolution is essentially a problem of organization and discipline. Given the real objective conditions of Italian society, the protagonists of the revolution will be the industrial cities, with their compact and homogeneous masses of factory workers. We need then to turn our greatest attention to the new life which the new form of class struggle provokes inside the factory and in the process of industrial production. But with only the forces of the factory workers the revolution will not be able to establish itself in a solid and widespread way: it is necessary to link the city to the country, form in the country institutions of poor peasants amongst whom the socialist state will be able to promote the introduction of machinery and bring about the great process of transformation of the agrarian economy. In Italy this work is less difficult than is thought: during the war a large part of the rural population entered the city factories: amongst them the communist propaganda quickly took root; this population should serve as a cement between city and country, should be used to develop tight propaganda work which destroys mistrust and rancour, should be used to, taking account of its deep understanding of the rural psychology and of the trust which it enjoys, begin precisely the activity necessary to bring about the raising and development of new institutions which will incorporate in the communist movement the vast forces of the workers in the fields.