At the same time he was a Marxist, one of the most profound students and original interpreters of Marx’s writings. As Cammett explains:
The ideas of Croce and Gentile were closely related to those of Marxism in Italy. The connecting link was Antonio Labriola, a Marxist who matured in the Hegelian school at Naples. Hence the gap between idealism and Marxism was not a difficult one to bridge…. Gramsci’s voluntaristic approach to fundamental Marxist problems makes his work especially appealing to intellectuals, many of whom had thought Marxism wholly deterministic. Moreover he was able to express his Marxist thought in the language of other philosophies, often exposing the weak points of those systems by comparing them, in their own language, with corresponding Marxist concepts. There is a tendency to place Gramsci’s work, described as “left wing idealism,” midway between Croce and Marx or between totalitarianism and historicism. Undoubtedly, Gramsci’s extreme historicism sometimes led him away from the opinions generally accepted by Marxists. Thus he implied that economic laws were not really laws in the “naturalistic sense” but “laws of tendency” in the historicistic sense. Gramsci also doubted the wisdom of “mechanically” asserting the objective reality of the external world—as though the world could be understood apart from human history.
Italy’s entry into the war in May 1915 gave Gramsci his first opportunity. What he thought was to be an irremediable handicap turned into an asset. When all the young able-bodied Socialist leaders from Turin were sent to the front, he was left practically alone to carry on. He abandoned his studies and plunged into dangerous political work. Turin was (and still is) one of the three great industrial centers of Italy. The war had enlarged its plants and filled them with workers from the countryside, raw material for the revolution, who had to be indoctrinated, organized, and led. Social tension was extreme; disorders were an almost daily occurrence. They were actively promoted by the Party, which was against the war, and was among the few to answer Lenin’s Zimmerwald appeal. Gramsci tirelessly wrote articles and manifestoes, addressed meetings, delivered lectures, took an active part in the organization of strikes. He acquired precious experience. This was his first real contact with ordinary human beings, the chosen people of his own particular faith, the industrial proletariat. (He wrote his Russian wife in 1923: “How many times I have asked myself whether it is possible to attach oneself to a mass of people when one never loved anyone before….”)
AFTER A WORKERS’ UPRISING in 1917, he was elected secretary of his Party’s section. He considered himself on the extreme Left, in revolt as much against the Socialist leadership as against capitalism. The Italian chiefs were then elderly provincial figures of another era. Most of them wore romantic whiskers of all shapes, drooping black neckties, and wide-brimmed black hats. Most of them were sincere and honorable men, but, in the eyes of the young, superficial, inept, and verbose. They were men who tried to hide their incapacity and irresolution under rhetorical appeals to sentiment or apocalyptic pronouncements of the most bloodcurdling kind. Each served his own particular interpretation of socialism, from extreme moderation to extreme radicalism, and fought all others tooth and nail. As a result, when the war ended, while the bourgeoisie was disheartened and the forces of law and order were impotent, the Party lacked the cohesion, the clear ideas, the sense of responsibility, and the discipline necessary to exploit the unique opportunity history was offering it.
IN 1919, when his friends and collaborators came back from the war, Gramsci founded the Ordine Nuovo, a weekly mostly dedicated to ideological debate. It wanted to purge the Party of lukewarm and timid members in order to promote the revolution as soon as possible. Another faction led by Bordiga had been formed in Naples at about the same time with vaguely similar aims. It also published a weekly, Il Soviet. Yet the sophisticated Ordine Nuovo group had little in common with Bordiga’s Bronze Age followers, except the desire to exploit the situation, the mistrust of Socialist Party leaders, the enthusiastic acceptance of Soviet guidance, and unlimited admiration for Lenin. Bordiga was fundamentally a sectarian who rejected encumbering alliances, not only with the Catholics and bourgeois democratic movements, but also with the whole Socialist Party. He was a sworn enemy of Parliament: he wanted his men to abstain from voting and to keep their names out of the candidates’ lists. The Turin group, considering that most of Bordiga’s enemies were, for different reasons, their enemies too, decided to play along with him for the time being. This is one of the earliest instances in which Gramsci was induced to follow a non-Gramsci line.
The Third International was, at the time, anxiously watching the situation from afar. A victorious revolution in Italy, which the experts considered possible, would have given great help to the struggling Soviet regime. Moscow sent a stream of observers, emissaries, and secret agents, most of whom were uncertain and ill-informed, to prod the Italians, report on progress, and guide them to victory. Who was to be supported with money and advice? Lenin, who always thought reformists more dangerous than the secret police and the capitalists, naturally wanted the Italian Party purged of all moderates, and looked benignly on both extremist groups. Gramsci’s and Bordiga’s, though he felt more sympathetic to the Ordine Nuovo intellectuals. He enthusiastically endorsed a diagnosis of the situation, written mostly by Gramsci, which had been sent from Turin. It included the prophetic words:
The current phase of the class war in Italy could foreshadow either the conquest of power by the revolutionary proletariat or the rise of a tremendous reactionary movement organized by the owners’ class and the governing elite.
On July 20, 1920, Lenin wrote: “We must simply say to the Italian comrades that the position of the Communist International corresponds more closely to the views of Ordine Nuovo than to those of the present leaders of the Socialist Party.” He also attacked Bordiga, a member of the delegation to the second Comintern congress (to which Gramsci was not elected): “Comrade Bordiga forgets that the struggle to destroy Parliament must also be conducted in Parliament…. Parliament is one of the arenas of the class war.” But while the Turin group appealed to the philosopher and scholar in him, Lenin, the ruthless revolutionary organizer, could not forget that Bordiga carried with him almost 90 percent of the extreme Left.
In January 1921 the Socialists gathered at Leghorn for their seventeenth congress. Gramsci was a delegate, but did not speak. The orders from the Comintern were to expel all reformists. Bordiga took a vigorous stand for the elimination from the Party of practically everybody; although he was supported by some agents of the Comintern, he lost. Historians now know that his and Lenin’s radical proposal was a mistake. The Party was no longer on the offensive, the sole arbiter of a pre-revolutionary situation, as it had been only two years before. It was now fighting for its life against armed and organized Fascist reaction; it needed all the allies it could keep, in particular the reformists who controlled some of the best strongholds, the thousands of municipal administrations. The day after his overwhelming defeat, on January 21, 1921. Bordiga led his men and the Ordine Nuovo delegates to another theater, the Teatro San Marco, and founded the Italian Communist Party known at the time as the Partito Comunista d’Italia, a rump movement of all-out extremists. Officials were elected immediately. Bordiga was acclaimed the undisputed leader; his henchmen seized the majority of the posts on the Central Committee and occupied every position on the executive with the exception of one. Gramsci had difficulty in getting elected to the Central Committee and did not make the executive.
Years later he wrote reflectively: “The Leghorn schism, which detached the mass of the proletariat from the Comintern, was one of the greatest victories of the reactionary forces.” Why had he not spoken against a line that went against his shrewd and more enlightened views? After Leghorn he took a subordinate place and loyally ran the Ordine Nuovo, transformed into a daily, as an orthodox party organ. The exchange of ideas ceased. Older comrades still reproach Gramsci for having expressed his lucid criticism of Comintern tactics and the ruinously sectarian Party only in private conversations with close friends. If he had behaved differently, they speculate, he could perhaps have deflected the course of history, for as a result of the Leghorn split and Bordiga’s leadership, the Fascists’ March on Rome was without serious opposition. Gramsci, however, knew that he could carry only a small percentage of the rank and file even in Turin, most of them his own close friends, and not all of these all the time.
What he faced at Leghorn, and later when he was in control of the Party or in jail, is the agonizing dilemma intelligent Communists struggle with sooner or later: When the leaders or the Comintern are wrong, should one carry on a hopeless fight for one’s own ideas, lose, and leave the Party, or should one keep one’s mouth shut, swim with the tide, and wait for a better moment? Twice again after Leghorn Gramsci had to face the same decision. The second time was in Vienna, in 1924. He was, by then, the Party chief, and his choice carried far greater weight and had wider repercussions.
Two years earlier, in May 1922, he had been sent to Moscow as the Italian representative to the Comintern, where he arrived desperately ill, with a nervous condition which almost completely prevented him from reading and writing. He had a high fever and tremors in his arms and legs. He was taken to a rest home at Sebranyi Bor to recuperate. One of the inmates was Eugenia Schucht, a Russian girl brought up in Rome, whose sister Julka often came to visit, and eventually became his wife. To Julka he wrote what are surely among the most endearing love letters in Italian and the most lucid political analyses. She bore him two sons, Giuliano and Delio, who are now Soviet citizens, one a violinist in a Moscow symphony orchestra and the other a marine colonel in Leningrad.
While Gramsci was recovering, the situation in Italy had become disastrous. The Fascists had seized power, Mussolini was Prime Minister, and the Communists were facing not only the onslaughts of the Black Shirts but also the efficient persecution of the police and the carabinieri. Most of the leaders were in jail, including Bordiga. The Party was without hope, reduced to a few scattered and isolated groups with few capable leaders, and little opportunity for organized action. Since Gramsci was the only one free to move, he was sent to Vienna in 1923, put up in an unheated laborer’s furnished room, supplied with a half-witted secretary and not enough money, and nominated Party leader.