Paul le Blanc continues the Revolutionaries Reviewed series with a discussion on Antonio Gramsci. An Italian Marxist imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime, he famously wrote what would become The Prison Notebooks – notes which continue to influence activists the world over.
The fascist dictator Benito Mussolini once referred to Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci as “this Sardinian hunchback and professor of economics and philosophy” who had “an unquestionably powerful brain.” The fascist prosecutor at Gramsci’s trial – where he was convicted on six different charges of treason – warned the court of the dangers this posed in calling for a sentence of two decades: “We must stop this brain from functioning for twenty years.”
Gramsci doubly cheated the authorities – dying in eleven years, not twenty, and doing intensive brain-work during his incarceration that has kept his thoughts “functioning” – powerfully influencing scholars and activists alike – from the time of his incarceration until today.
The Shaping of Gramsci
Mussolini’s description highlighted his opponent’s origins (the impoverished island, off the Italian coast, of Sardinia) and his physical afflictions: not only did he have two humps, front and back, but he stood less than five feet tall and walked with a limp. A multiply-disadvantaged outsider, as one observer at the time reported, he “dominated his own unhappiness with an iron will for study, making efforts way beyond the strength of his organism.”
A brilliant student with a passion for reading, Gramsci won a scholarship that enabled him to enter the University of Turin in 1911. He had been reading Marxist pamphlets and the Socialist Party’s paper Avanti since his early teens. An older brother had become a militant in the Italian Socialist Party, but the younger sibling would make his own way politically.
An activist within the Italian Socialist Party, he opposed the First World War (1914), gravitating the revolutionary wing of that party. In 1919, he helped to found a new weekly, L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order), which sought to apply the lessons of the 1917 Russian Revolution to Italy. This paper became the voice of militant factory workers who engaged in a general strike and factory occupations that in 1920 seemed to threaten the overturn of Italian capitalism and a workers’ revolution.
Socialist Party moderates who led the trade union movement quickly effected a compromise, however, which ended the strike, resulting in modest concessions for the workers and the continued (if temporary) survival of a liberal capitalist regime.
Frightened by the workers’ militancy, however, the landed aristocracy and industrialists concluded that a right-wing counter-force was needed, and they poured substantial resources into the rising fascist movement led by ex-socialist Benito Mussolini.
Disgusted by the moderate Socialist sell-out, Gramsci and many others on the left end of the political spectrum concluded that a genuinely revolutionary workers’ party was needed. The result was the foundation of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1921.
Revolutionary Leader, Fascist Prison, Prison Notebooks
The rise and succession of victories of the fascist movement was a major concern to Gramsci and his comrades, but there was not agreement on appropriate perspectives for the PCI. Gramsci developed a perspective in disagreement with some comrades whom he saw as overly moderate and others whom he saw as overly rigid, sectarian, and ultra-left.
His perspective became predominant in the PCI, and he was considered to be its central leader. His popular writings profoundly influenced and helped to educate his party’s working-class base.
Gramsci was elected to parliament in 1924, where he was the leader of the Communist representatives. In January 1926, a party majority was won to Gramsci’s positions. Later in the year, however, he was arrested as the fascists consolidated their dictatorship.
He wrote to his brother in 1929: “My mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and willpower to overcome each and every obstacle.”
During his ten years in prison, where his health was finally broken, Gramsci was able to fill thirty-four thick notebooks with a remarkable range of political, social, historical, and cultural writings. The presence of fascist censors forced him to use code words and obscure formulations. Gramsci was also concerned to develop an approach superior to the rising and authoritarian influence of Stalinism, which was beginning to corrupt the international Communist movement.
“The first notebooks were neat, in a clear and regular calligraphy,” according to Carl Marzani (who first introduced Gramsci’s “open Marxism” to English-speaking readers). “At the end, the handwriting wavers, wanders, is erratic and weak. But the thinking remains lucid, vigorous, trenchant, while the style continues poised and professional, spiced with humor, irony, and a genial twist of phrase.”
Gramsci’s intellectual achievement would have powerful impact years after his death. Among the most important works embedded in the prison notebooks is the extensive essay “The Modern Prince,” composed between 1929 and 1934.
Polemicizing against the “mechanical and caricatured interpretation” of Russian revolutionary experience, Lenin insisted (in debates within the Communist International) that “in Europe, where almost all the proletarians are organized, we must win the majority of the working class and anyone who fails to understand this is lost to the Communist movement.” Gramsci scholar Peter Thomas concludes that “Lenin’s advice on the need to win over the majority of the working class (understood in the broadest sense) … became Gramsci’s fundamental orientation.”
Machiavelli and Gramsci
In the early 1500s, Niccolò Machiavelli had written a classic on political power and leadership, The Prince. Gramsci contrasts to this what he calls The Modern Prince, which for him was not a monarch but a revolutionary party.
“The first element is that there really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led,” he wrote. “The entire science and art of politics are based on this primordial and (given certain general conditions) irreducible fact.”
A difference between Machiavelli and Gramsci lies in the phrase “given certain conditions.” These are the conditions of modern class society, which have not always existed, first crystallizing roughly 5000 years ago. As a Marxist, Gramsci believes these conditions can and must be overcome.
As he puts it: “In the formation of leaders, one premise is fundamental: is it the intention that there should always be rulers and ruled, or is it the objective to create the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary?”
Another difference between Machiavelli and Gramsci is that the theorist of the Middle Ages believed that leadership would be provided by individual heroes and villains – princes – whereas Gramsci believed that the modern prince must be collective and can only be a political party, which is the focus of his text. As he notes, “the formation of the party system” involves “an historical phase linked to the standardization of broad masses of the population (communications, newspapers, big cities, etc.) . . .”
Yet Gramsci was critical of this modern-day politics: “the counting of ‘votes’ is the final ceremony of a long process, in which it is precisely those who devote their best energies to the State and the nation (when such they are) who carry the greatest weight,” but he goes on to note the corrupting influence of the upper classes, in modern times the capitalists: “the historical rationality of numerical consensus is systematically falsified by the influence of wealth.”
Gramsci was reaching for a genuine, expansive, revolutionary democracy – democratic working-class councils in which, as he puts it, political life moves beyond “the canons of formal democracy,” and “the people’s consent does not end at the moment of voting,” but rather also involves active participation in implementing the decisions, giving new life and deeper meaning (or working-class content) to the idea of self-government.
This relates to Gramsci’s remarks regarding “that determinate party which has the aim of founding a new type of State.” In his 1921 mini-essay “Real Dialectics,” he made it clear that he viewed the Italian Communist Party in this light, emerging from lessons learned from momentous events, “the real dialectics of history,” by growing numbers of individuals who are part of “the worker and peasant masses.”
Gramsci had been active in organizations consisting of hundreds of thousands, in turn influencing millions. He was critical of far-left grouplets that “have never or almost never represented homogeneous social blocs,” but are instead “the political equivalent of gypsy bands or nomads.”
Rather, he believed in the necessity of an interplay of struggles for ideological and cultural “hegemony” (predominance) by mass working-class organizations and movements to overcome the “hegemony” of the upper classes.
Organized revolutionary socialists must “counterpose an energetic organizing campaign using the best and most conscious elements of the working class,” Gramsci insisted. “In every way open to them, the socialists are striving via these vanguard elements to prepare the broadest sectors of the masses to win freedom and the power that can guarantee this freedom.”
In his mind and notebooks, Gramsci systematically labored to develop conceptualizations of the modern prince, the disciplined and conscious collective, and the revolutionary party, which he saw as essential to unleashing and mobilizing the immense creative energy of the oppressed. Those who continue the struggle for human liberation may find nourishment and strength from this gift.