Revolutionary Lives: Antonio Gramsci

This article, by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh, was published in Issue 2 (May 1998).

When the Italian socialist leader Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned by Mussolini’s regime, his fame had preceded him. One day in the prison yard a fellow inmate “stared at me for a while, then asked, ‘Gramsci, Antonio?’ Yes, Antonio! I answered. ‘It can’t be,’ he said, ‘Antonio Gramsci must be a giant, not a little squirt like you.’” And Gramsci—shy, awkward, hunchbacked—indeed went against every conventional stereo­type of the rugged revolutionary.

Gramsci was born in Ales on the island of Sardinia on 22 January 1891. His father was a government official, which meant that the Gramsci family were comfortably off. But Antonio’s personal destiny was inter­rupted in early life. A childhood accident led to a severe spinal deformity and set off a train of illnesses that would follow him all his life. And after his father made the mistake of backing the wrong clique in a local election, irregularities were suddenly discovered in his running of the land registry, and his imprisonment plunged the family into poverty.

So Gramsci soon came to know the misfortune of ending up on soci­ety’s losing side. At the age of eleven he had to go to work—ironically enough in the land registry, although he was shifting registers about rather than writing in them. Despite doing very well in school he had to give up his education to support the family, while the less-gifted sons of shopkeep­ers went forward. He experienced the desperate conditions of the Sardinian working people, a consequence of Italian capitalism’s underdevelopment of the south and the islands.

His father’s release after a few years allowed Gramsci to continue his schooling, though not without great sacrifice by the family, and in 1911 he managed to win a scholarship to the University of Turin. So Gramsci moved from the economically backward island to the heart of industrial Italy—and of Italian socialism. He was already familiar with socialist ideas: not only had his elder brother sent socialist literature home while working in Turin, but the working class of Sardinia itself had begun to fight. Gramsci rejected the socialism on offer from the Socialist Party (the PSI), however. Its wooden version of Marxism reduced the achievement of socialism to a mathematical accumulation of economic data, and it saw the south as a “ball and chain” on the advanced workers of northern Italy. He nevertheless joined the party in 1913, and became involved in writing for and editing the city’s socialist papers, but the sources of his socialism weren’t those of the PSI leadership.

He finally embraced Marxism, like so many others, under the influence of the Russian revolution of 1917. Here was a revolution, he wrote, which destroyed the ‘Marxist’ schema: instead of waiting for capitalism to em­brace every last inch of Russia, the Bolsheviks had realised that the time was ripe for the workers to take power. Here was a Marxism that was about taking a real, active part in history, not passively accepting a role as its victims.

These ideas became a practical reality during the ‘biennio rosso’, the ‘two red years’ of 1919 and 1920. The first world war was followed by a drastic economic crisis, in which the cost of living rocketed. In response, and in tandem with the revolutionary upsurge across Europe, the Italian workers launched wave upon wave of strikes and demonstrations, culmi­nating in September 1920 when they seized control of their factories for a time.

Gramsci and others launched the magazine L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order) in the midst of the struggles. Consciously identifying themselves with the Russian revolution, the ‘ordinovisti’ asked themselves if the Ital­ian working class had any native equivalent of the soviets—the workers’ councils used by the Russian workers to win power. They had: the internal commissions. These committees of trade union representatives in each fac­tory had to transform themselves into factory councils, broaden themselves out to include unorganised workers, challenge the bosses’ power in the fac­tories, and link up nationally to fight for political power. Gramsci wrote that

the development of the internal commission became the central prob­lem, the idea, of L’Ordine Nuovo. It came to be seen as the fundamen­tal problem of the workers’ revolution; it was the problem of proletar­ian “liberty”. For ourselves and our followers, L’Ordine Nuovo became the “journal of the Factory Councils”. The workers loved L’Ordine Nuovo (this we can state with inner satisfaction) and why did they love it? Because in its articles they discovered a part, the best part, of them­selves. Because they felt its articles were pervaded by that same spirit of inner searching that they experienced: “How can we become free? How can we become ourselves?” Because its articles were not cold, intellec­tual structures, but sprung from our discussions with the best workers; they elaborated the actual sentiments, goals and passions of the Turin working class, that we ourselves had provoked and tested. Because its articles were virtually a “taking note” of actual events, seen as moments of a process of inner liberation and self-expression on the part of the working class.

Gramsci and the Ordine Nuovo insisted that the workers’ state already existed potentially in the organs of the working class. That state—which “will guarantee freedom to all anti-capitalist tendencies and offer them the possibility of forming a proletarian government, and externally will operate as an implacable machine crushing the organs of capitalist industrial and political power”—would need the economic power of the workers as a basis for its political sway. The socialist revolution, wrote Gramsci, was not just a matter of overthrowing the capitalist state, or of placing power in the hands of communists: “The revolution is proletarian and communist only to the extent that it is a liberation of the proletarian and communist forces of production that were developing within the very heart of the soci­ety dominated by the capitalist class.” And the factory council was the tool for the job: “The Factory Council, as an expression of the autonomy of the producer in the industrial sphere and as the basis for communist economic organisation, is the instrument for the final struggle to the death with the capitalist order, in that it creates the conditions in which class-divided so­ciety is eliminated and any new class division is made ‘physically’ impos­sible.”

PSI leaders condemned the Ordine Nuovo for concentrating on indus­trial issues to the exclusion of politics. This was a myth, replied Gramsci: “we simply made the mistake of believing that only the masses can make the communist revolution, and that neither a party secretary nor a president of the republic can achieve it by issuing decrees. Apparently this was also the opinion of Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, and is Lenin’s opinion”. They also, unlike the Socialist leaders, wanted to win the small farmers of the south to their banner: “not only is it true that by emancipating itself the working class will emancipate all the other oppressed and exploited classes, but it is no less a fact that the only way these other classes will ever emancipate themselves is to enter into a close alliance with the working class”.

The PSI proved unwilling and unable to seize the opportunity of the biennio rosso. While the party had a large reformist wing, and a bigger revolutionary wing, the main levers of power were held by the ‘maximalists’. The language of maximalism was revolutionary—they opposed the war, supported the Russian revolution, called for communism in Italy—but its practice was all compromise. The ordinovisti demanded that the PSI expel the reformists, lead the factory council movement to­wards political power, become a real revolutionary socialist party. All this the maximalist leaders refused to do, abandoning the struggles of 1919-20 to a lack of direction.

The battle for the PSI was fought out at its congress in January 1921. When the dust settled, the reformist resolution won 14,000 votes, the maximalists won 98,000, and the revolutionaries 58,000. This left wing walked out and set up the Communist Party of Italy (the PCI).

Gramsci had written prophetically the year before that

The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is the phase that pre­cedes: either the conquest of political power on the part of the revolu­tionary proletariat and the transition to new modes of production and distribution… —or a tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied classes and governing caste. No violence will be spared in subjecting the industrial and agricultural proletariat to servile labour: there will be a bid to smash once and for all the working class’s organ of political struggle (the Socialist Party) and to incorporate its organs of economic resistance (the trade unions and co-operatives) into the machinery of the bourgeois State.

This was the period when the fascist squads began to grow, breaking strikes of agricultural workers, burning down the offices of trade unions and socialist papers. Without the benefit of hindsight, it proved very diffi­cult for the Italian socialists to get to grips with fascism, but Gramsci’s writings provide brilliant insights. He recognised that fascism was not just any old reactionary movement, but a new, specific, and dangerous phe­nomenon, based in the Italian middle class. It was supported and employed by big landowners and businessmen, but had a definite degree of auton­omy. It would face internal contradictions between its anti-establishment rhetoric and its conservative reality. The rise of fascism demanded a seri­ous, united working-class response—ultimately, the overthrow of capi­talist society itself.

What could have been the beginnings of such a response sprang up in the form of the Arditi del Popolo, popular anti-fascist militias. Rank-and-file Socialists, Communists, and trade unionists joined and sup­ported the Arditi, but the leaderships of both the PSI and the PCI opposed them. Gramsci publicly expressed his own support, but the PCI line de­manded separate Communist militias—which failed to materialise, even after the Arditi del Popolo died out in the face of such opposition.

This was typical of the PCI’s sectarian attitudes. The 58,000 congress votes didn’t translate into anything like 58,000 members for the new party, and the majority of left-wing workers stayed elsewhere. Amadeo Bordiga emerged as Communist Party leader—a powerful fighter but rigidly sec­tar­ian. Under his leadership fascism was regarded as just another form of capitalist reaction, which would succeed only in paving the way for social­ist victory. A united front with other working-class organisations was off the cards, as was any attempt to make the PCI a mass workers’ party. As long as the Communists kept themselves pure in readiness for the revolu­tion, all would be well.

Little trace of Ordine Nuovo politics was to be found in the young PCI. Gramsci made no challenge to Bordiga at first, however. If Bordiga was too far to the left, others in the party were too far to the right, and he was concerned not to allow them assume leadership. And indeed, Gramsci him­self was by no means free of Bordigan tendencies. But he soon became convinced that the party had to be turned around.

Bordiga’s dominance, he concluded, arose from his willingness to or­ganise a faction within the PSI years before. If the ordinovisti hadn’t been reluctant to do the same, the factory occupations of 1920 could have found a socialist leadership and a different result. Instead, when the split came, the PCI became an ultra-left rump, and too fixated on itself to become any­thing else:

The error of the party has been to have accorded priority in an abstract fashion to the problem of party organisation, which in practice has simply meant creating an apparatus of functionaries who could be de­pended on for their orthodoxy towards the official view. It was believed, and is still believed, that the revolution depends only on the existence of such an apparatus; and it is sometimes even believed that its exis­tence can bring about the revolution.… Any participation by the masses in the activity and internal life of the party, other than on big occasions and following a formal decree from the centre, has been seen as a dan­ger to unity and centralism. The party has not been seen as the result of a dialectical process, in which the spontaneous movement of the revo­lutionary masses and the organising and directing will of the centre converge. It has been seen merely as something suspended in the air; something with its own spontaneous and self-generated development; something which the masses will join when the situation is right and the crest of the revolutionary wave is at its highest point, or when the party centre decides to initiate an offensive

A major educational effort was required inside the PCI to make its activists into real Marxists, “who in other words have brains as well as lungs and a throat”.

Gramsci eventually won the argument, and by 1924 was effectively leader of the party. (He was elected as a parliamentary deputy in the same year.) He attempted to point the Communists in a new direction:

The principle that the party leads the working class must not be inter­preted in a mechanical manner. It is necessary not to believe that the party can lead the working class through an external imposition of authority.… these deviations lead to an arbitrary, formal over-estima­tion of the party, so far as its function as leader of the class is con­cerned. We assert that the capacity to lead the class is related, not to the fact that the party “proclaims” itself its revolutionary organ, but to the fact that it “really” succeeds, as a part of the working class, in linking itself with all the sections of that class and impressing upon the masses a movement in the direction desired

And it could only become a real party of the working class in so far as it tackled the concrete problems that the struggle for power threw up. For in­stance, “In no country is the proletariat capable of winning power and keeping it with its own forces alone”, wrote Gramsci. “It must therefore obtain allies: in other words, it must follow a policy that will enable it to place itself at the head of the other classes who have anti-capitalist inter­ests, and guide them in the struggle to overthrow bourgeois society.”

In Italy this meant above all winning the small farmers of the south. Looking back on the years of the Ordine Nuovo, Gramsci claimed as one of its great merits “that of bringing the Southern question forcibly to the atten­tion of the workers’ vanguard, and identifying it as one of the essen­tial problems of national policy for the revolutionary proletariat.… The revolutionary worker of Turin and Milan became the protagonist of the Southern question” instead of the southern middle-class politicians. But these same revolutionary workers would first have to shed every trace of craft or regional prejudice:

The proletariat can become the leading and dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances which allows it to mobilise the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois State.… They must think as workers who are members of a class which aims to lead the peasants and intellectuals. Of a class which can win and build socialism only if it is aided and followed by the great majority of these social strata. If this is not achieved, the pro­letariat does not become the leading class; and these strata (which in Italy represent the majority of the population), remaining under bour­geois leadership, enable the State to resist the proletarian assault and wear it down.

Gramsci’s leadership of the PCI was abruptly terminated on 8 Novem­ber 1926. On the pretext of an attempt to assassinate Mussolini, the fascists moved to wipe out all opposition. Gramsci was arrested and sent to a prison colony. Despite the regime’s reputation for punctuality, his parlia­mentary immunity from arrest wasn’t removed until the following day.

“Some call me satanic, some saintly, but I have no intention of appear­ing a martyr or a hero”, wrote Gramsci to his brother while awaiting trial. “I think of myself as an ordinary man who refuses to barter his deep con­victions for anything in the world.” Shortly before his trial began he told his mother not to worry, that he was a political prisoner:

I’m not ashamed, nor will I ever be ashamed of this fact. Basically, I myself willed this arrest and condemnation. I’ve always refused to compromise my ideas and am ready to die for them, not just to be put in prison. For this reason, I feel serene and satisfied with myself.… There was no other way to act. Yes, life is difficult, and sometimes sons, for the sake of their own honour and dignity, have to make their mothers suffer.

The trial of twenty two Communists before the fascist Special Tribunal for the Defence of the State lasted a week. In the case of Gramsci the state prosecutor demanded: “We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.” The judges duly obliged, adding another four months and five days for good measure. But if they thought to close down Gramsci’s brain they were to be sorely disappointed.

The last thing someone as susceptible to illness as Gramsci needed was prison and, although it was clear from the beginning that a plea for mercy to Mussolini would have been favourably received, he refused to recant. As he wrote to his mother, “Imprisonment is a terrible thing, but for me dis­honour on account of moral weakness or cowardice would be even worse”. Instead he insisted on everything he was entitled to and no more—the right to medical treatment, to visits, to read and to write.

Gramsci’s isolation was increased by a clear falling-out with the PCI. He disagreed with the disastrous so-called ‘left turn’ pursued by the inter­national Communist movement from 1929, which branded the labour par­ties ‘social fascists’ and cut revolutionaries off from the working class. At the same time, while disagreeing with Trotsky and the Russian opposition, he had opposed their suppression, and now opposed the expulsion of dissi­dents from the Italian party.

But Gramsci planned to use his enforced separation from the immediate struggle to develop his political thoughts. The eye of the prison censor forced him to make arguments by analogy, and to employ roundabout phraseology when describing Marxist thinkers and concepts. But the thirty three copybooks Gramsci filled with the results of his prison reflections represent not just a triumph of revolutionary will, but one of the twentieth century’s most valuable contributions to Marxism.

From the rise of the Italian capitalist class he drew conclusions on the nature of political leadership in general:

the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as “domination” and as “intellectual and moral leadership”. A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to “liquidate”, or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force; it leads kindred and allied groups. A social group can, and indeed must, already exercise “leadership” before winning governmental power (this indeed is one of the principal conditions for the winning of such power); it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to “lead” as well.

Gramsci was here continuing the thinking he had put forward outside prison, and consciously developing what he saw as a major theme of Lenin’s thought in particular.

The prison copybooks also examine the role of intellectuals, both as a separate stratum, and as a part of each class. His concern was to develop a layer of “organic intellectuals” in the working class, “intellectuals of a new type which arise directly out of the masses, but remain in contact with them to become, as it were, the whalebone in the corset”. He wrote a sus­tained critique of the Communist International’s handbook of Marxist theory, attacking its dead and mechanical approach and arguing for a liv­ing, active Marxism.

The role of the revolutionary party, he wrote, should be to lead as the ordinovisti led the factory councils movement in Turin:

This leadership was not “abstract”; it neither consisted in mechanically repeating scientific or theoretical formulae, nor did it confuse politics, real action, with theoretical disquisition. It applied itself to real men, formed in specific historical relations, with specific feelings, outlooks, fragmentary conceptions of the world, etc., which were the result of “spontaneous” combinations of a given situation of material production with the “fortuitous” agglomeration within it of disparate social ele­ments. This element of “spontaneity” was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, directed, purged of extraneous contamina­tions; the aim was to bring it into line with modern theory—but in a living and historically effective manner.… This unity between “spontaneity” and “conscious leadership” or “discipline” is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes, in so far as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses.

And all the time, Gramsci was physically deteriorating. Constant attacks of dizziness and insomnia combined with severe stomach disorders. He was suffering from arterio-sclerosis, as well as pulmonary tuberculosis and Pott’s disease, a tubercular infection of the back. An international campaign for his release forced Mussolini to relent somewhat: at the end of 1933 Gramsci was transferred to a prison clinic, and in 1935 to a proper clinic, where he was still kept under constant watch by fascist guards. His condition worsened, with the doctors adding high blood pressure, gout, and angina to the list.

Gramsci planned to move home to Sardinia when his sentence expired on 21 April 1937. But his imprisonment had left him in no condition to go anywhere. On the 25th, hours after receiving official confirmation that he was free to go, he suffered a brain haemorrhage. He lingered until 4:10 am on 27 April 1937.

During an extremely serious attack in 1933 Gramsci, hovering between life and death, began to rant against religion, as he told his sister-in-law in a letter: “Apparently, I talked for one whole night about the immortality of the soul in a realistic and historical sense, claiming that immortality is a necessary survival after death of man’s noblest actions and the incorpora­tion of them, beyond human will, into the universal process of history.” In this sense, Antonio Gramsci is immortal. His life and work—from his con­tribution to the factory councils movement to his fight against fascism, from his attempts to build the forces of socialist revolution in Italy to his development of Marxist thought in Mussolini’s jails—do survive after him, and will as long as workers fight for freedom. The central fascist police re­port on Gramsci in 1935, as he lay dying, got it spot on: “Antonio Gramsci is one of the most outstanding personalities in the communist world and as such, consequently, is an element worthy of the most intensive and careful surveillance.”