Suzanne Charles

In Commemoration of Antonio Gramsci

First Published: Theoretical Review No. 14, January-February 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and a revolutionary act. Gramsci June 21, 1919

January 22 marks the 88th anniversary of the birth of the great Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Born in a small town in Sardinia, a particularly economically oppressed and exploited part of Italy, as a young child Gramsci developed a hunched-back as a result of a fall probably combined with rickets. In spite of his weakness Gramsci – the fourth of seven children in his family – began to work ten hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week, when he was only eleven years old.

Because he studied on his own, he was later able to finish high school and go to the University of Turin (1911). There, demonstrating the courage and perseverance typical of his whole life, he continued his studies in spite of poverty, illness and extreme loneliness. As he later wrote to his sister: “One by one, I let each strand tying me to the world and to my fellow men be cut.... For perhaps two years, I didn’t laugh once and I didn’t cry ... but I never hurt anyone but myself.”

By 1914 Gramsci had become involved in writing for the Socialist Party weekly Il Grido del Popolo (“The Cry of the People”) and two years later he had a regular column in Avanti!. Shortly after he became editor of ’s local Turin edition. One who knew Gramsci at the time has written that “he had the great gift of knowing how to speak to everyone.” This was probably because he was a good listener who learned much from the workers who came to the Avanti! office to ask him questions on all kinds of subjects. Following the Bolshevik revolution, Gramsci published in Avanti! an important article called “The Revolution Against Capital” in which he supported Lenin’s insistence that with the leadership of a revolutionary workers’ party, socialism could be brought about even in countries where capitalism had not yet reached its full development.

On May 1, 1919, Gramsci and other Turin revolutionaries including Palmiro Togliatti began publishing a weekly they called L’Ordine Nuovo (“The New Order”). Its major purpose was to work toward the development of an Italian counter-part of the Russian “soviets” or workers’ councils. Factory councils known as oonsigli di fabrica quickly grew up in the FIAT factories and elsewhere in Turin; by the end of 1919, 150,000 Turinese workers had organized themselves into factory councils.

On March 29, 1920, a sit-down strike began at a FIAT subsidiary. This was the chance that the capitalists had been looking for: their intention was to try to destroy the workers’ movement before it destroyed them. Within a few days FIAT had declared a lockout throughout its Turin complex. On April 13th a general strike, which was to last eleven days and involve 500,000 workers, was launched by the Turin Chamber of Labour. This great general strike was defeated, however, because at that time the capitalists were better prepared for a clash than were the workers and because the strike was confined to the Turin area thanks partly to the Socialist Party’s failure to give its support at the national level. For the Italian working class the cost of this failure was to be very high. As Gramsci said in May 1920:

The present phase of the class struggle ... is the phase that preceded either the conquest of political power by the revolutionary proletariat ... or a tremendous reaction by the capitalists and the governing caste. Every kind of violence will be used to subjugate the agricultural and industrial proletariat.

In the meantime, the Italian Communist Party was in formation. Within the Socialist Party (founded in 1892), there were, by 1920, three major tendencies. The first of these was of the reformist, Second International/opportunist type and was led by Filippo Turati. In May 1920, in “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder (Appendix III), Lenin had called for “Turati himself and his bourgeois defenders, accomplices and inspirers” to be drummed out of the Socialist Party and for the party to “become a Communist Party in name and in deeds.” In Chapter VI, Lenin had pointed out that “spineless” opportunism on one side of the Party gave rise to “and to some extent justified” so-called “left-wing” communism on the other. The second tendency within the Socialist Party was that of the Comunista astensionistas (“Communist-Boycottists”) led by Amadeo Bordiga; they refused to have anything to do with elections as a matter of principle. In “Left-Wing” Communism ... (Appendix IV), Lenin criticized Bordiga and called childish and “running away from their own shadow” the sectarian leftists’ argument that in boycotting all parliamentarianism they were successfully combatting reformist thinking, not only among progressive intellectuals and other middle-class groups, but among workers themselves.

At a meeting of the Second Congress of the Comintern (on July 30, 1920) Lenin came out clearly in support of the third major trend within Italian Socialism, Gramsci’s anti-reformist, anti-dogmatist position, although the Gramsci/L’Ordine Nuovo group had little influence on the Party’s national leadership. Said Lenin:

... the II Congress of the Third International regards the criticisms of the (Socialist) party, and the practical proposals put before the national congress of the Italian Socialist Party by the Turin section of the party in L’Ordine Nuovo of 8 May 1920 as substantially correct. They correspond fully to the fundamental principles of the Third International.

Unfortunately, as Togliatti was to write thirty-five years later, in Gramsci “intellectual seriousness and a repugnance for any k^nd of demagoguery were combined ... with a great personal modesty, which prevented him from immediately assuming leadership, as he ought to have done.” One result of the relative weakness of Gramsci’s faction was that when the Italian Communist Party was formed in January 1921 it was able to gain the support of only about one-third of the Socialist Party’s former members although only a minority of the remaining two-thirds supported Turati’s reformism. The new Communist Party was initially dominated by Bordiga’s left-sectarians, who were both better organized and more numerous than the anti-dogmatists led by Gramsci. Bordiga, while he was reportedly both an honest person and a very capable worker, was also a commandist who was still inflexibly convinced that the greatest immediate danger to the Italian working class and the Communist Party came not from Mussolini’s fascist movement, which since late 1920 had been growing rapidly, but from “contamination” by bourgeois liberal reformism. When Bordiga opposed the Comintern’s “united front” line (adopted at its Third Congress in mid-1921) over 85% of the Italian Communist Party’s members went along with him.

In May 1922, Gramsci left Italy for the USSR, where because of serious illness he stayed until November 1923. During this time he met Giulia Schucht, who was to be the mother of his two sons. Gramsci remained closely involved in decision-making over the future leadership and policies of the Italian Communist Party. Offered the very influential backing of the Comintern’s Executive Committee in replacing Bordiga as leader, Gramsci answered that given the fact that its majority still supported – however wrongly – Bordiga’s line, he could not be displaced before much ideological struggle had broken down the hegemony of his ultra-left line among Party members. Gramsci strongly believed that a Communist Party’s strength lived in the creative Marxist understanding and revolutionary commitment of its members, not in the adoption or imposition of “solutions” – even correct ones – from above or afar.

When Gramsci returned to Italy in May 1924 he inherited the leadership of the Communist Party because of Bordiga’s arrest over a year earlier, following Mussolini’s “March on Rome” (May 1922) and a fascist coup d’etat that had been approved by Italian capital and the monarchy. At about this time Gramsci wrote:

In 1919-1920 we made bad mistakes which we are paying for at present. We did not create a fraction, nor try to organize it throughout Italy for fear of being called arrivistes and careerists. We were not willing to give the sort of autonomous leadership to the Turin factory councils which would have been capable of exerting enormous influence throughout the country because we feared that there would be a split in the unions – that we would be expelled too soon from the Socialist Party. We should, or at least I should, publicly admit having made mistakes whose repercussions have been far from light.

One major problem, which was partly a result of the L’Ordine Nuovo group’s overly-cautious policy in 1919-1920, was the firm entrenchment of left-sectarianism within the Communist Party; even after Bordiga’s arrest the majority of the Party held to his line. Gramsci’s job, therefore, was to struggle against ultra-leftism while re-organizing the Party on an underground basis and trying to build a united front against fascism with all anti-fascist group’s, principally the Socialist Party, which Gramsci recognized still had the support of the majority of the Italian working class. His policies had some success: between April 1924 and April 1925 the Communist Party’s membership tripled, partly because a left faction of the Socialist Party was convinced to join the Communists. By late 1925, a majority of the Party’s membership had become convinced that it had to abandon ultra-leftism if it was to survive and fulfill its historic duty.

In January 1926, at the Italian Communist Party’s Third Congress, Gramsci delivered his “Lyon Theses.” These rigorously analyzed the nature of Italian capitalism and the development of the labour movement and combatted the ultra-leftist’s line that “history would prove them right” with a clear explanation of the fact that fascism had been able to take power in 1922 because of the mistakes of the Communists before and after the Party’s formation. The Party could lead the workers and be recognized by them as “their” party, Gramsci said, not through any kind of external authoritarian imposition (either before or after the revolution), nor by “proclaiming” itself the workers’ leader, but “only as a consequence of its action among the masses.”

On October 31, 1926, all oppositional parties were outlawed by the fascist government and a week later Gramsci was arrested. A tribunal which tried him was urged by the government prosecutor to “stop this brain from functioning for twenty years.” Gramsci was therefore sentenced to twenty years, four months and five days on six charges of treason. But his great mind was not stopped from functioning: transported from one . prison to another in cattle cars, chained so he could neither stand nor lie down, in Gramsci’s early lettere dal carcere(prison letters) he wrote of his intention to study German and Russian (later English, Spanish and Portuguese) and to do historical research. He tried to grow flowers by the window of his cell and was almost obsessed by a desire not to waste whatever time remained to him. Never one to concede acquired rights for fear of being called an opportunist, Gramsci demanded and got the books and writing materials to which he was entitled under bourgeois law. This allowed him, in the last eleven years of his life, to make the major contributions to Marxism (which he called “the philosophy of praxis,” praxis being the dialectical unity of theory and practice) that are contained in his Quaderni del Caraere (Prison Notebooks).

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (containing 2,848 closely written pages) show the great width and depth of his interests and knowledge. First setting himself to translate various works from German and Russian into Italian – these included sections from the Communist Manifesto, Wage Labour and Capital and the Theses on Feuerbach – Gramsci then began translating stories for his children, the younger of whom (born in September 1926) he had never seen. He later wrote on many cultural subjects, including Dante’s Inferno, the significance of the plays of Luigi Pirandello and the “pragmatism” of the American philosopher William James. Dealing with history and politics, he examined Machiavelli’s The Prince and criticized the mechanistic Marxism of Nikolai Bukharin’s Historical Materialism. Gramsci was particularly concerned with the role of intellectuals (in a wide sense of the term) in both capitalist and socialist societies because of their key position in developing and disseminating culture. He recognized the need for a cultural as well as a political/economic revolution and claimed that proletarian ideology must begin to gain “hegemony” on the cultural level before the conquest of State power. This idea deserves attention now that the Chinese attempt at cultural revolution has been a failure in keeping revisionists from gaining power. It is particularly vital for us who live in developed capitalist societies – where the existence of facilities of mass communications has further strengthened the hegemony of ruling-class and increasingly fascist ideas – to recognize the need for struggle on the’ cultural front as a major priority.

As prison could not deteriorate Gramsci’s intelligence, neither could it destroy his spirit although within the first few years of his imprisonment he suffered a painful skin disease and the break-down of his digestion worsened by the loss of all his teeth. On December 19, 1929, he wrote:

My state of mind synthesizes these two feelings (pessimism and optimism) and goes beyond them. I can a pessimist intellectually and an optimist from the point of view of will. In any situation I think of the worst outcome to put into action all my reserves of will and overcome the obstacle. I have never had any illusions and I have never been disillusioned. I have armed myself on purpose with limitless patience, not a passive or inert patience, but a patience enlivened by perseverance. ...

In 1932-33, when he was obviously dying of T.B., Gramsci refused the offer of pardon saying that to accept it would be moral suicide. In late 1933 he was taken from the prison at Turi di Bari, where he had been since 1928, to a clinic at Formia, where he was kept constantly under guard. Recovering slightly, after April 1934 Gramsci wrote his eleven final Notebooks. Although mentally clear to the end, by August 1935 he was too ill to write. On April 27, 1937, following a paralyzing stroke, he died. A martyr in the struggle for the elimination of the exploitation of human by human over forty years after his death, Gramsci’s courageous personal example can serve to inspire us. He once pessimistically remarked that “history is a teacher, but has no pupils.” Let us prove him wrong by putting to use his ideas on the nature of fascism, the problems of ultra-leftism and the need for struggle on the cultural front; let us strive to learn from the mistakes as well as the successes of the comrades who have gone before us.