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A Founding Father

THE SUCCESSFUL FORMULA Togliatti patiently employed for almost thirty years, pretending to abandon it when the Comintern disapproved, and resuming it when the going was good, was not invented by him. It was devised long ago by one of his friends, a fellow-Sardinian, with whom he had studied at the University of Turin just before the First World War. His name was Antonio Gramsci. He is now considered not merely a hero of the Party but one of Italy’s most brilliant and original thinkers. No modern Italian intellectual whether of the Right or the Left can be considered entirely free of his influence. Gramsci, born at Ales in Sardinia, January 22, 1891, was one of the founders (not, as the Italian Communists like to believe, The Founder) of the Party in 1921, a delegate to the Comintern in 1923, the leader of Italian Communists in 1923 at the age of thirty-two, and was elected a member of Parliament in 1924. He was arrested two years later, in violation of the law guaranteeing immunity to members of Parliament, and sentenced to twenty years in jail. He died in a Roman clinic in 1937 of neglect and inadequate medical care. He left a vast number of newspaper articles, a few essays, several reports, and many letters, but his main contribution to political thinking is contained in the thirty-two notebooks which he filled during his detention, covering almost every aspect of Italian life, from literature to social life, from religion to economics, from the remote past to the Fascist present and the probable future.

Two important books on Antonio Gramsci have appeared recently, one in Italy, the other in the United States, and they should attract the wide attention which his personality and achievements deserve. Both carefully avoid the reverent exaggerations or suppressions of the official Party studies, which have obscured Gramsci’s real work. Vita di Antonio Gramsci by Giuseppe Fiori is the work of a young Sardinian journalist, historian, and novelist, who has lovingly reconstructed his subject’s native environment, questioned surviving relatives and contemporaries, collected anecdotes, and dug up forgotten documents and publications, to produce a lively portrait of both the public and private person. The result is both an authoritative and readable book, a rare combination in Italy where authoritative books tend to be verbose, untidy, and incomprehensible, and readable books are rarely authoritative. In fact the book has not only become almost a best-seller in Italy, but it will probably be considered the definitive work on Gramsci. The American work, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism by a professor at Stanford University, is a more specialized study. It gives as much attention to the public figure as to the political scene, the Italian working-class movements after the First World War. It clarifies a number of intricate problems which Italian writers often mistakenly take for granted and seldom bother to explain to themselves or to foreign readers. Cammett’s useful study is solidly based on original and shrewd observations and on carefully established facts.

The two books complement each other almost perfectly. Both writers were lucky to have gathered their material at a time when many controversies were over, important private files had become available, some secret government archives had been opened, and the Party itself had timidly published for the first time a few embarrassing documents which it had kept buried for years. Both books are essential to an understanding of the Party’s present policy. What position should the Party take toward the Center-Left coalition of Catholics and Socialists now in power? Many foreign observers believe the Party is neatly split into two discernible schools of thought. This opinion seems confirmed by debates in the official ideological magazines and the Central Committee. The first school of thought is said to believe the Party should fight the government without mercy, in Parliament and the streets, as one more bourgeois travesty; that it should try to rescue the Socialists form the unnatural embrace of the Church, which is corrupting and destroying them; that it should attempt to form a new, anti-clerical, secular coalition.

The second school is said to classify the government as a typically feeble, progressive, democratic bourgeois movement which must be aided at all cost. The Party therefore should approach it without b undue animosity, nudge it gently toward an increasingly independent foreign policy and an irreversible left-wing reform of society. The ultimate aim should be the formation of a large and stable alliance of Catholics, Socialists, and Communists, easily dominated by the Party elite. This last view, of course, is believed to be championed by the intellectuals, while the first is attributed to old Stalinists and the rank and file. In fact the rank and file are naturally attracted to protest and violent opposition: they feel comfortable being where they have always been. They find the present government particularly easy to hate. It could not have been set up without direct American help; it is certainly paralyzed, and one of the most inept governments since the end of the war. And easy to fight: It finds it embarrassing to resist the workers’ requests and to maintain order against workers’ demonstrations.

What would Gramsci choose if he were alive? Of course, he himself did not always follow a pure Gramsci line. What he would do today is virtually what the Party is actually doing: encouraging the rank and file to express their dislike of the government as loudly and violently as they can. (It would embarrass the coalition to have no opposition from the extreme Left.) But, with, the judicious use of parliamentary votes and the threat of social unrest, the Party tries to influence important foreign or internal policy decisions, meanwhile smoothing the way for its eventual entry into the government majority.

GRAMSCI HAD MOST of the requisites of a great rebel leader. He was, to begin with, the descendant of expatriate rebels; his name is of Albanian origin; his great-grandfather had fled to Italy form Epirus in 1821 to escape Turkish oppression. He belonged to an impoverished middle-class family (his grandfather had been a colonel of the gendarmi, an exalted rank in the Kingdom of Naples; his father had studied law at the University until the colonel’s death and financial losses forced him to accept a miserable job in a Sardinian village). Gramsci was extremely intelligent and eager to learn, but humiliatingly discovered that lazy and stupid boys form well-to-do families could go to school, but that almost all the bright poor were supposed to go to work. His native island was a distant and marginal section of Italy, where most of the inhabitants scraped along at a North African level of subsistence and only a few lived comfortably. Gramsci always spoke with a thick Sardinian accent, as thick as the Corsican accent of Napoleon or Stalin’s Georgian.

He was furthermore a hunchback. Vladimir Degott, the Comintern emissary who met him in 1919, described him to Lenin as “a stupendous, interesting comrade, small, deformed, with a head so large it does not look like his own.” The large head was handsome in his youth, with deep and thoughtful blue eyes behind pince-nez glasses, and a well-designed expressive mouth. Unfortunately, his voice was so thin he could never address large meetings. When he made his only speech in Parliament, in 1925, all deputies (most of them Fascist by that time) crowded around him to hear what he was saying, and Mussolini, who could not leave the Prime Minister’s seat, cupped a hand behind his ear. If Gramsci’s dwarf size and tiny voice prevented him from becoming a rabble-rousing tribune, they made him a more dangerous man, the lone thinker who disdains evoking drifting emotions but distills durable explosive ideas. (He believed his deformity would always keep him from having normal relations with other people. When the Russian girl who was to become his wife fell in love with him in 1923, he confessed to her: “For many, many years I have been accustomed to think there is an absolute, almost fatal impossibility for me to be loved by anyone.”) He was sickly, tortured even in youth by insomnia, headaches, and nervous breakdowns, which often prevented him from concentrating and gave him occasional forms of amnesia. He was, however, indomitable. The amount of work he managed to do, both when he was young and free and when he was in jail, would have exhausted a stronger man.

Somehow, with the help of his family’s heroic sacrifices, he went to school and, in 1911, won one of the scholarships reserved for Sardinian students at the University of Turin. (His name appeared ninth in the list of winners; number two was Togliatti.) Gramsci studied the humanities, specializing in philology, for which he had a particular inclination, but avidly followed a number of other and sometimes unrelated courses. He read omivorously. At that time, Turin had a particularly distinguished faculty; on it was represented almost every contemporary view. It can be said that Gramsci’s fundamental eclecticism dates from his years at Turin. He embraced socialism but always in later life refused to accept its rigid dogmatism. He particularly disliked positivism, then fashionable among the Left, and sectarianism. He always strongly believed that the Party should collaborate with all workingclass movements, whatever their beliefs, and try to form occasional alliances with democratic bourgeois groups. He was fascinated by the great problem of Italy, the power of the Church, which had worried Machiavelli and every Italian patriot since his time. He wrote: “In Italy, in Rome, there is the Vatican, there is the Pope; the Liberal State had to find some sort of agreement with the spiritual power of the Church; the workers’ State will also have to find a similar arrangement.” He also wrote: “I don’t go to church. I am not a believer. But we must be aware of the fact that those who believe are the majority. If we keep on having cordial relations with atheists alone we shall always be a minority.”

He was impressed chiefly by the open-minded Liberals, like Luigi Einaudi, a professor of economic theory, or Piero Gobetti, a friend and colleague, who founded the review Rivoluzione Liberale, and died at twenty-six from the effects of savage Fascist beatings. And by the Liberal Benedetto Croce, who was not a professor but dominated Italian intellectual life at the time. Strict socialists despised him as a “class enemy.” As late as 1917 Gramsci bravely wrote: “Croce is the greatest thinker in Europe today.” Much fascinated him in the older man’s writings, most of all his firm denial that history would automatically do the work of man and would generate progress if left to itself. Gramsci believed with Croce that the future was shaped by the will and the ideas of man, and by “man” he secretly meant the philosophers. He wrote that “every revolution has been preceded by hard critical thinking, the diffusion of culture, and the spread of ideas among men who are at first unwilling to listen, men concerned only with solving their private economic and political problems.” The best revolutionaries, according to him, were to be found in the reading rooms of Public Libraries, where Marx, Lenin, and he himself had spent so many hours. This belief in the essentially revolutionary character of culture is at the basis of his faith in the historical role of Italian intellectuals, a faith which the Party still holds. He also believed with Croce and Gobetti that liberty was the shining goal of man’s endeavor, or, as he put it, “the creation of a society in which there could be the greatest amount of freedom with the minimum of coercion.”

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