Antonio Gramsci 1924

Against Pessimism

First published: in L'Ordine Nuovo, 15 March 1924;
Translated: by Natalie Campbell.

There can be no better way to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Communist International, the great world-wide association of which we, us revolutionary Italians, feel more than ever an active and integral part of, than to take a look at ourselves. We should take a look at the little that we have done and the enormous amount of work we still have left to do; this should help to dissipate the thick, dark cloud of pessimism which is oppressing the most able and responsible militants, and is in itself is a great danger. It may in fact be the greatest danger we face at present, given that its consequences are political passivity, intellectual slumber, scepticism about the future.

This pessimism is closely linked to the current situation in which our country finds itself; the situation explains it to a certain extent, but, of course, does not justify it. What difference would there be between us and the Socialist Party, between our will and the party’s tradition, if we also knew how to work and were only actively optimistic in periods when the cows were plump, when the situation was favourable? What difference would there be between us if we were only actively optimistic when the working masses advanced of their own accord, because of an impulse they could not fight, and the proletarian parties could take up a prime position and grab hold of the reins of their own accord?

We have our own things to take into account, our own points of view, a greater sense of responsibility and we must show that we have such; the real worry to of having to get organisational forces and suitable materials ready, which will adorn every event, but what difference would there be between us and the Socialist Party if we lapsed into fatalism? What if we fooled ourselves under the sweet illusion that events could only follow a certain sequence, as we predicted, in which they would inevitably run into the dikes and channels that we constructed; what if they were directed by these and took historical form and power in them?

This is the knot of the problem, which is in a complete tangle, because from the outside passivity seems to be an active effort, because it seems there is a line of development, a tradition in which workers are meritoriously sweating away but getting tired of digging at.

The Communist International was founded on 5th March 1919, but its ideological and systemic formation only took place at the 2nd Congress, in July and August 1920, with the approval of the Constitution and the 21 conditions. In Italy, a campaign for the redevelopment of the Socialist Party began as a direct cause of 2nd Congress, that is to say, this time it started on a national scale. It had already come into being in March of the previous year, because of the Turin subdivision, with the motion being drawn up for the party’s imminent National Congress that should have been held in the city, but that did not have any notable consequences (it was at the abstensionist faction’s Conference in Florence, held in July 1920, before the 2nd Congress, that they rejected the proposal made by a representative of the ‘New Order'; the proposal had been to enlarge the foundation of the faction, making it a communist one, without abstensionist prejudice that in practice had lost a great part of its reason).

The Livorno Congress and the split which took place there was drawn upon by the 2nd Congress, by the 21 conditions. It was shown to be the necessary conclusion to the ‘formal’ deliberations of the 2nd Congress. This was a mistake, and today we can evaluate the far-reaching consequences that this had. Truthfully, the deliberations of the 2nd Congress were a living interpretation of the Italian situation and the situation in which the whole world found itself; but we, for a number of reasons, did not decide to act out of what happened in Italy, from Italian facts which proved the 2nd Congress right. This was despite the fact they were a part, and one of the most important ones at that, of the political matter that motivated the decisions and the organisational measures taken by the 2nd Congress. We, instead, limited ourselves to making formal issues a priority, issues of pure logic, pure coherence, yet we were overcome, because most of the politically organised proletariat disagreed with us, they wouldn’t come with us, though we had both authority and international prestige on our side, which were both great and were factors on which we had relied.

We didn’t know how to lead a systematic campaign, a campaign that could reach to and force a reflection on the core and constituent elements of the Socialist Party; we did not know how to translate into a language understandable to every worker and Italian peasant, the meaning of every one of the Italian events from 1919-1920. After Livorno, we were not capable of working out exactly why the Congress had reached such a conclusion; we didn’t know how to look at the problem practically, so that we could find a solution to it, so that we could continue on our specific mission – to win over the majority of the Italian population.

We were – it must be said – overwhelmed by events; we were, without wanting to be, part of the general division of Italian society, which had become an incandescent melting pot, into which all traditions, all historical formations, all prevailing ideas were thrown, without leaving a trace. We did however, have one consolation, which we clung on to – that nobody had been saved from this fate, that we could have absolutely pinpointed this catastrophe, when others were continuing, happily but foolishly unaware.

After the split at Livorno, we entered into a state of necessity. There is only one way in which we can justify our actions and activities after the split at Livorno: it was out of simple yet intense necessity – the dilemma of life or death. We had to organise ourselves into a coherent party in the depths of Civil War, bringing together our factions with the blood of the most devoted militants; we had to transform, through training and enlistment, our factions into contingents for the guerrilla, the most atrocious and difficult guerrilla that the working class had ever had to fight.

We did, however, succeed: the party was created and created on strong foundations; an army of steel, certainly too small to be able to enter into battle against opposing forces, but just big enough to become the framework of something greater, the framework of an army that, to refer to talk in historical Italian terms, can ensure that the Battle of the Piave will follow a similar route to that of Caporetto.

This is the current problem that we face, inexorably: we must put together a great army ready for the upcoming battles, bring one together from the forces that from Livorno to the present day have shown they know how to hold strong, without hesitating or taking steps back from the attack so fervently put forth by fascism. The development of the Communist International after the 2nd Congress has given us the land which is right for what, it understands, once again, as the situation and the needs of the Italian situation; it has taken into account the deliberations of the 3rd and 4th Congress’, together with those of the Enlarged Plenums which took place in February and June 1922 and June 1923.

The truth is that we, as a party, have already taken some steps forward in this direction: we have nothing left to do but to take note of what we have done so far and to bravely continue. What do these events which unravelled at the core of the Socialist Party really mean? Firstly there was the split from the Reformists, secondly the exclusion of the editors of the ‘Pagine Rosse’ and then the attempt, third and finally, to exclude the Third Internationalist faction, and in fact these events have a very clear meaning. While our party was forced, as the Italian section, to limiting its activity to the physical fight, to defending ourselves against Fascism and to maintaining its rudimentary structure; as an international party, we were working and continuing to work, trying to open new roads towards the future, to widen our circle of political influence, to pull from neutrality that part of the throng that before had looked on with indifference, somewhat hesitant.

The action of the International was, for some time, the only one which allowed our party to have effective contact with the wider masses, which helped to feed the ferment of debate and the beginnings of a movement for a large proportion of the working-class; for us this would have been impossible, given the current situation, to achieve otherwise. It has undoubtedly been a great achievement to have plucked factions from the Socialist Party, a great achievement given that when the situation seemed even worse, units were created from the formless Socialist gel; they proved there was still faith, despite everything which had gone on, in the world revolution. These units, through events which seem to burn brighter than words themselves, have recognised that they made mistakes in 1920, 21 and 22.

This was a defeat of Fascism and the reaction: it was, if we wish to be truthful, the only physical and ideological defeat of Fascism and of the reaction in these three years of Italian history. It is necessary to react with vigour against the pessimism of some groups in our party, even if they are some of the most reliable and skilled amongst us. This is, at the current time, the greatest danger, within the new situation that is being created in our country; it will find approval and justification in the first Fascist legislature.

The great battles are drawing closer; battles which will perhaps be more bloody and harder than those of previous years. With that in mind, all the energy of our leaders will be needed, the best form of organisation and concentration of the party’s mass, a great spirit of initiative and a great rapidity of response. Pessimism more or less takes this form: we return to a pre-Livorno situation, we will have to carry out once more the work which we carried out before Livorno and that we believed was finished.

We must show every comrade how politically and theoretically wrong this position is. Clearly we will also need to fight hard; clearly the task of our party’s core contingent, established at Livorno, is still not over and it will not be for a long time yet (it will still be intense and current after the victory of revolution). But we will no longer be in a pre-Livorno situation, because the world and Italian situation is not, in 1924, the same situation as that of 1920; we ourselves are no longer the people we were in 1920 and we would never want to be them again. Because the Italian working-class has changed a great deal, and it will no longer be the easiest task getting them to reoccupy the factories with, stovepipes in place of cannons, after having deafened them, and made their blood boil with the vile demagogy of the Maximalist beasts. Because our party exists and that is something in itself; it is in that which we have never-ending faith as the better, most sound, most honest part of the Italian proletariat.