Vita di Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism
A short time ago, in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, after announcing my party’s vote in favor of a Communist proposal for the abolition of movie censorship, I concluded, “It is superfluous to point out that Liberals have been against all kinds of censorship in all countries for centuries, while Communists are against it only when and where they are not in power.” I sat down as the extreme Left booed me. All this had happened before. Whenever the occasion warrants it, either the Communists or the Liberals make similar proposals, the Liberals more often than the Communists; a noble debate follows. The Liberals draw the neat distinction between permanent and occasional love of liberty; the Communists boo; then an overwhelming majority (Catholics, neo-Fascists, Monarchists, Republicans, and Socialists) buries us under an avalanche of nays. As I was leaving on that particular day, the young, erudite, and inexperienced Marxist-Leninist who had just spoken on behalf of his Party ran after me and said, “This you must admit, that the Italian Communists have always been in favor of liberty!” He was visibly hurt that doubts should be cast on the sincerity and intellectual consistency of his motives. I did not argue. I knew he had no doubts that liberty (real liberty, and not the trompe l’oeil variety which bewitched our grandfathers and is still held sacred by the bourgeois) could be secured in no other way than by serving one of the most tyrannical, bureaucratic, and dogma-ridden organizations ever invented by man. I reassured him. Yes, I said, the Italian Communists have always declared liberty was their ultimate goal. He looked relieved and thanked me.
This apparently contradictory belief, that pyromaniacs make the best firemen, that one can further the cause of the angels by joining the devils, is undisputed among Italian intellectual Communists. The rank and file do not worry about such metaphysical matters; they wholeheartedly belong to what they rightly think is a pitiless, centralized, and well-knit mass organization, which will destroy all class enemies, conquer the world, and run it autocratically, according to inflexible scientific rules, in the interest of the proletariat. They would like nothing better than a good bloody revolution tomorrow morning but they know they have to be patient. In the meantime they enjoy occasional street brawls and disorderly strikes, which are good for frightening the government, intimidating the American embassy, and extracting concessions from the capitalists. Few ordinary card-holding members ever felt qualms of conscience. They dearly loved Stalin; considered forced-labor camps a sad necessity; cheered the Soviet tanks in Budapest; and now are tempted to applaud Mao, the leader of a comprehensible form of paleo-Communism.
The intellectual elite, on the other hand, who have run the Party since 1924 with absolute power and no back talk, were continually tortured by secret doubts while Stalin was alive. Even loyal Palmiro Togliatti had to struggle with his conscience. He told Ignazio Silone in 1930: “The forms of the proletarian revolution are not arbitrary. If they do not correspond to our preferences, so much the worse for us. And what is the alternative? What happens to the comrades who abandon the party?” Many intellectuals were shocked by Khrushchev’s twentieth congress speech, tore up their cards after the Hungarian revolution, are frightened by the ultimate consequences of the Chinese schism, and openly deplore the primitive excesses of the red guards.
Can it be said that there are two parties in juxtaposition, the party of the intellectual leaders and that of the rank and file? To be sure, the difference between the two is almost invisible to the outsider. The intellectual leaders appear to him on the surface to be as enthusiastic, orthodox, and disciplined as any ordinary member; they always respectfully follow Soviet decisions, particularly in foreign affairs. (During the recent troubles, they all sided with Nasser against Israel, “a tool of the imperialists,” as soon as Pravda took its stand.) Yet, if one looks a little more attentively, one discovers that there is often something vaguely heretical about them. To be sure, their writings quote Marx and Lenin, but just as often are based on Italian historical writers, Italian philosophers from Vico to Croce, none of whom were particularly noted for their revolutionary spirit. Communist examples and teachings from the Soviet Union and other Communist countries are painstakingly adapted to local prejudices and social conditions, until at times nothing recognizable is left. Above all, they cherish the Italian Liberal tradition from the Parthenopean Republic of 1799 to the Carbonari society and the Garibaldi expeditions; they show an odd respect for all the barricades of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which established those very liberties which their followers consider ridiculous impediments to progress, mere decoys for sentimental fellow travelers.
Once, years ago, when Gian Carlo Paietta, an energetic young chief, stormed the prefecture of Milan at the head of a tumultuous crowd, and called Togliatti in Rome from the Prefect’s own phone, the leader did not hide his displeasure: “Get out of there immediately,” he said. “What do you think you’re doing? Lenin said that either one carries out a revolution to the end or one does not.” When Togliatti was wounded by an assassin in 1948, his last instructions to his lieutenants before being wheeled to the operating table were: “Siate calmi. Non perdete la testa.” “Be calm. Don’t lose your heads.” To be sure, the cadres all know they might one day have to lead a real revolution and have to kill and deport thousands of opponents, including women and children. But they confess privately their hope that their opponents, being intelligent Italians, will know in time when the game is up, will see the folly of putting up a pointless show of resistance, and will resign themselves to the inevitability of historical forces. One might say the leaders of the Italian Communist Party dislike revolutions just as much as studious staff officers dislike the untidiness of war.
This curious situation, in which a party of millions of fanatic, uncultivated, and easily influenced people has always been efficiently controlled by a relatively small number of mild scholars, most of whom abhor violent words, wear glasses, and speak with soft voices, has proved to be a very successful one. Had the party been led mainly by sectarian terrorists as certain other Communist parties are, it would have been weak and vulnerable. Indeed, this proved to be so between 1921 and about 1923, when the Party was led by its founder, Amadeo Bordiga, an engineer from Formia, who was an uncompromising, intransigent, stubborn revolutionary. Bordiga commanded an enthusiastic mass following, but divided the Left opposition, managed to frighten the bourgeoisie out of their wits, and helped the Fascists gain power by rallying all the timid to their side. As a result, the Party was practically destroyed and driven underground. On the other hand, an organization composed of a few thousand bookish students of history and philosophy, vaguely in love with liberty and anxious to free man from century-old injustices, would have been equally doomed to failure. The last movement of this kind was the Partito d’Azione, organized clandestinely during the time of Mussolini. All leaders and no soldiers, and probably including the finest and noblest minds in the country, it once and for all showed the practical ineffectiveness of the formula: Its members filled the jails, died heroically in the Resistance, left a priceless heritage of doctrine and examples, but never managed to win one seat in Parliament when democracy was reestablished.
TO BE SURE not all Communists are happy with the present situation. One impatient young member, an excellent novelist, recently compared the Party to an old galleon, loaded with money, men, and guns, and becalmed in the middle of the ocean. Dissatisfied critics accuse the leaders of being fat bureaucrats in love with the status quo, old men whose aim is not the revolution but the enjoyment of power in a free society, and point out that they did nothing when they could easily have staged a coup d’état immediately after the end of the war. The Party was still armed, the Americans had discharged their soldiers and abandoned their weapons to rust on foreign beaches, the Italian bourgeoisie was dispirited, and the State in almost complete decay. Nothing happened. Stalin himself thought the Italian leadership too bookish to be effective. “Look at Togliatti,” he told Vladimir Dedijer. “He is a good theoretician, he writes good political articles, but will never be able to rally the people and lead them to victory.” Togliatti was known as “the Professor” in the Comintern secretariat in the Thirties. It has also been pointed out that the middle classes which the Party sacrificed so much to assuage have not been pacified. They still distrust and fear it. The Party’s overtures to democratic parties, its loud declarations in favor of liberty, parliamentary institutions, and peace are looked upon by most of its opponents as signs of duplicity and transparent Machiavellian tricks.
All this Byzantine sophistry and high culture are undoubtedly causing many simple card-carrying Communists to abandon the cells. Nevertheless the number of voters grows at every election, both in absolute figures and in percentages. At present one Italian out of four votes for the Party candidates. Nothing stops this growth, neither the center Left coalition nor the rising standard of living of the working classes. The Party is now a major factor not only in Italian internal politics (every party’s position is now more or less determined by its relation to the Communists), but also in European affairs and Western defense plans. It even forced the Church to consider coming to terms with it. It has not placated the fears of the middle class, to be sure, but this time it has surely prevented the rise of a violent and armed extreme Right faction. The Party is so influential and learned that it is now affecting the thinking and the plans of all Western Communist parties to a greater extent than the mother party, the CP of the Soviet Union, now does. It is even influencing the younger and more liberal thinkers in the Soviet Union itself, who like the Italians’ disapproval of political dictatorship over the arts. Some experts believe that if conditions do not change some day, probably within ten or twelve years, the Italian Communists will control enough votes to attract other parties to form a strong coalition government. This would be a final triumph of the intellectual elite. That day they will have fully succeeded in creating, out of a violent, immature, illiterate, and impatient mass following, a moderate, realistic, cultured, and prudent movement—the only kind that could possibly conquer power, and do so without provoking international complications and internal reactions, while receiving the blessings of the Church, and perhaps even the approval of the State Department.
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.”
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.
At this time the Soviet experts had finally come to the conclusion that the Leghorn split had been a grave mistake. The instructions from Moscow, based on the third and fourth congress of the Comintern, aimed at an immediate reunification of all workers’ movements. Gramsci was ordered to convince the comrades still at large once again to join forces with the Socialists. At the end of 1923 and the beginning of 1924, he sat in his little room wrapped in blankets, and wrote hundreds of letters. There was nothing wrong with the new line except the timing. Controversies on the defeat of the Left by the Fascists had been raging for more than a year. Socialists and Communists had become unreconcilable enemies. In his jail cell, Bordiga, still theoretically in control of the Party, rejected the new instructions outright, and proposed to break off relations with the Comintern. He was enthusiastically seconded by a majority of the Central Committee and by the rank and file.
WHAT WAS GRAMSCI TO DO? He knew of course, that the instructions from Moscow, although correct, were practically insane at that moment. He also knew that Comintern support was the only hope. He knew that Bordiga did not present a useful alternative, for he was only a mad romantic visionary. Gramsci did the best he could, maneuvering between two impossible positions. “I had to keep to an eel-like course, to the Comintern happy and the Italian comrades more or less together,” he later admitted. Zinoviev complained at the time that “Gramsci makes vague promises; and when he fulfills them, the result is the contrary of what one expects.”
The last time Gramsci had to face a similar dilemma was in 1930. This time he allowed himself to disagree openly with the Comintern decisions. Probably because he had no direct responsibility, he could afford to take a brave stand, consistent with his past beliefs and with his record as a student of Marx and Italian history. In May 1924 he had returned to Italy. He had been elected in absentia to the Chamber of Deputies and thought he would be protected from arrest by parliamentary immunities. A month later Matteotti was murdered and the Fascist regime was shaken to its foundations. Law-abiding bourgeois and timid conservatives abandoned it in droves for the time being. The Communist Party could cautiously start to reorganize, a few newspapers and magazines appeared again, workers began meeting indoors. Gramsci lived quietly. His wife and elder son joined him in Rome for a time, and he resumed his former Turin life; he spent his time reading, writing, talking to the workers and cultivating friends, not necessarily all of them Communists. He finally defeated Bordiga at the Party congress held in France, at Lyons, by drawing up a series of proposals, based on his own interpretation of the new Comintern line, in favor of collaboration with all anti-Fascist groups. He made one speech in Parliament (against a bill allegedly designed to outlaw Freemasons and all similar secret sects). He wrote an essay on the Problema del Mezzogiorno. He also addressed a brave letter to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in indirect defense of Zinoviev, Trotsky, and Kamenev. It never reached Stalin. Togliatti intercepted it, thought it impolitic and imprudent, and sent Gramsci an answer which is now said to be lost. Gramsci read it in the offices of the Soviet embassy in Rome and probably tore it up. This was his last important political act as a free man.
AFTER THE ATTEMPTED assassination of Mussolini on October 31, 1926, the Fascists passed the “exceptional laws” ordering the immediate dissolution of all opposition parties. They established a “special court” for the “defense of the State” and carried out mass arrests. Gramsci was among the first to face the tribunal. On the request of the prosecutor that “we must stop this brain from functioning for twenty years,” he was sentenced to twenty years, four months, and five days imprisonment. He was confined at the penal house of Turi, near Bari.
While Gramsci was in jail filling his notebooks, the Comintern official policy was once again abruptly reversed, to facilitate Stalin’s struggle with the rightist opposition. All Communist parties were now expected to break relations with the Socialists. The Italian leaders were flabbergasted. Those few who had emigrated to France were free; they had only recently managed to convince their most recalcitrant followers to make peace with the Socialists. How could a resumption of hostilities be justified? Some of the heroic founders of the Party, Silone among them, either resigned or were expelled. Togliatti believed that because only Soviet support could keep the organization going, Comintern orders were to be obeyed at all cost and was busy branding all dissidents as traitors and expelling them. Still, he thought it prudent to inform the comrades in Italian jails of what had happened. Among the emissaries dispatched to Italy was Gramsci’s brother Gennaro, who was one of the few people allowed to see him in Turi. This is how an authorized biography of Togliatti (Conversando con Togliatti, by Marcella and Maurizio Ferrara, Rome, 1953) related Antonio’s reaction to his brother’s revelations: “Although Gramsci could not know all the details of the struggle [between Stalin and the Right opposition led by Bukharin], from his penitentiary cell he gave his full approval to the most severe measures taken against the dissident comrades.”
THE TRUTH was something else. Many years later Giuseppe Fiori found Gennaro working as a cashier in a suburban drugstore in Rome (he was run over by an automobile and died in 1965) and asked him what had really happened. This is what Fiori writes:
Gennaro told his brother all he knew. Antonio was shocked. He agreed with the point of view of Leonetti, Tresso, and Ravazzoli [the dissident group]: he did not approve their expulsion and rejected the new Comintern line, which he believed Togliatti had accepted too quickly…. When Gennaro returned to Paris, “I went to see Togliatti,” he said to me, “and told him: ‘Nino [Gramsci’s family nickname] is completely in agreement with you.’ ” This was an unexpected end to his story and I asked him the reason why. He could not understand why I was surprised. His answer to Togliatti seemed to him the only logical conclusion to a logical reasoning. He explained that he feared his brother would be accused of “opportunism” both in Paris and in Moscow as soon as his real position was known. Therefore he had protected him. “If I had answered differently, not even Nino would have been saved from expulsion.”
Fiori’s publication of Gennaro’s testimony provoked violent reactions. A few months ago polemics raged in the Party national weekly, Rinascita, and its Sardinian counterpart, Rinascita Sarda. There were denials, confirmations by Fiori, letters pro and con written by veteran ideologues who had taken part in the 1929-1930 decisions, old Communists who had been in jail with Gramsci. In the words of Giuseppe Berti, one of the original founders and one of Nino’s old friends, Stalin’s orders “took away from the workers’ movement the essential weapon of a united front, essential to bar the road to Fascism and Nazism, above all in Germany, in the years in which such a weapon would have been most effective.” Subsequent disclosures in non-Communist publications, some of which were only weakly denied by the Party organs, revealed that Gramsci had not hidden his real thoughts from the more orthodox Communists with him in Turi. They were shocked and as a result he had been treated as all convicts treat a traitor or spy; nobody came near him or spoke to him for months. It is now believed that Togliatti was fully aware of Gramsci’s position, in spite of Gennaro’s pathetic lies, and had given orders that all contact by the Party with the sick man should cease. Nobody went to see him in Turi nor, a few years before his death, in the private clinics where he was free to see friends. It is doubtful, however, whether Gramsci would have received an emissary of the new Stalinist Central Committee: he never expressed any desire to see any Communist whatever, new, old, or dissident.
WHY WERE THESE FACTS revealed, or allowed to be revealed? Why were the denials so weak? There is no doubt that a few months ago, thirty years after Gramsci’s death, the Party carefully considered the partial disclosure of the truth and thought it useful. It allowed the revelations to leak gently, bit by bit, so as not to shock the sectarian old men, nor drive the illiterate rank and file into Maoist splinter groups; and ambiguously so that it could deny everything if need be. Why then were these disclosures thought necessary? Obviously, in the new international situation following Stalin’s and Togliatti’s deaths, it had become essential for the Party to demonstrate that the man officially known as The Founder (Amadeo Bordiga is still a non-person), the creator of the bridge between Italian Hegelianism and Marxism, the inventor of liberal-Marxist theories, the only Party leader whose work is read and admired by non-Communist intellectuals, had not been mistaken in his view of what we now know was one of history’s most critical moments. It was important not only because it helped to establish Gramsci firmly as the sole Patron Saint of the Party but also helped to strengthen his position as one of “the two original thinkers the Communist movement produced since 1917,” as George Lichtheim writes in Marxism (the other, of course is Lukács), and the inspirer of more and more intellectual rebels in foreign Parties.
The revelations also helped to prove that while Gramsci was right, Stalin was wrong, and that the most disastrous mistakes committed by the Italian Party were the result of Moscow’s bad Marxist interpretation of contemporary events, and ill-informed meddling. To be sure, without Comintern hospitality and support, the exiled Italian leaders could not have lived and worked between 1922 and 1943. Yet nobody now tries to deny that the Leghorn split and the fight against the Socialists facilitated the Fascist coup d’état, as the isolation of the German Party later helped Hitler to take power. Both these defeats, provoked by unenlightened orders from the Comintern, not only were among the causes of the Second World War, but also irremediably discredited, weakened, and retarded all Communist Parties and damaged the proletarian movement everywhere. How could intelligent men trust an allegedly scientific approach to politics which could justify such grievous misjudgments of reality?
Finally, the disclosures were considered necessary to prove that there is an uninterrupted coherent ideological trend between the 1919 Ordine Nuovo group and the contemporary Party. This is mostly true. Even Togliatti, who had to impose the will of the Comintern and expel some of his best friends with ignominy, later spoke of “force majeure,” of the “meandering course of the revolution,” and did not hide his personal preference for Gramsci’s dislike of sectarian policies and his sympathy for united fronts. When the documents become available, surely they will show how unhappy the Comintern leaders were with Togliatti’s fluid interpretation of their directives. The Italian Party now stands openly for its “Founder’s” views. It believes in “polycentrism,” or the right to interpret Soviet views in the light of local exigencies; believes in class alliances, in collaboration with progressive bourgeois movements, including the Catholics, to transform society in a way which makes a Communist takeover easy when the time comes; the exploitation of all the opportunities offered by bourgeois democracy, including freedom of the press, freedom to organize, to strike, to demonstrate, free elections, and the revolutionary use of parliamentary institutions. It deplores sectarianism and terrorism. Cammett points out:
There is indeed a continuity from the Ordine Nuovo period to the political letters of 1923-1924, from the Lyons Congress of the Italian Party to the Popular Front. Opponents of this kind of Communism have denounced it as “opportunism” and “reformism,” but others have interpreted it as a “realistic response” of the Communist movements to the economic, political, and cultural conditions existing in modern capitalist states.
This “response” is particularly difficult in Italy, which is neither a modern capitalistic state nor a primitive backward country, but an intricate and misleading mixture of both. It is a country that has been governed for centuries by foreign rulers and petty princelings; a country whose identity has been assured mainly by its intellectuals and artists, and whose revolutions were never made by the people as a whole.
In December 1933 Gramsci was freed, and was allowed to enter a private clinic in Formia for the urgent treatment of his many neglected ailments. Later he was transferred to a better clinic in Rome, the Quisisana, where, in August 1935, he was visited by a medical luminary, Professor Cesare Frugoni, who declared him in a desperate state. He had Pott’s disease, tuberculosis of the lungs, dangerously high blood pressure, recurrent crises of angina, and gout. On April 27, 1937, he died, six days after his prison sentence had expired. His sister-in-law, Tatiana, who assisted him till the end, gathered all his papers and his notebooks, which contain the essence of his thinking. The central core of Gramsci’s political philosophy is probably to be found in his reflections on Machiavelli. Like Lenin, George Lichtheim writes, Gramsci “had intuitively grasped the theory and practice of a revolution in a retarded country where the masses were suddenly hurled upon the political stage under the leadership of the Bolshevik vanguard.” He believed the Party of his day had the role Machiavelli had assigned to his imaginary Prince, or, in his own words:
The modern prince, the myth-prince, cannot be a real person, a concrete individual; it can only be an organization; a complex element of society in which the cementing of a collective will, recognized and partially asserted in action, has already begun. This organization is already provided by historical development, and it is the political party: the first cell containing the germs of collective will which are striving to become universal and total.
This passage might well be recommended to the Italian intellectual Communists who admire Gramsci, believe in liberty, and think an Italian Communist regime would not be totalitarian, but would respect the fundamental liberties and the rights of the opposition. Lichtheim points out that Gramsci’s criticism of totalitarianism was directed really at Mussolini’s regime, “but could be applied word for word to Stalin (under whose rule Gramsci would have been unlikely to fill entire prison notebooks with philosophical reflections).” He adds:
We owe it to the accident of this gifted writer’s incarceration under Fascism that there is such a thing as a Marxist critique of totalitarianism, “from the inside,” as it were. The various opposition groups which split off from the Russian Communist party in the 1920’s and 1930’s produced a great many critical reflections on the operation of the regime, but—with the doubtful exception of Trotsky’s last writings—nothing like a principled rejection of the central idea of totalitarianism, which is quite simply the idea of a social order created by force: perhaps the most “un-Marxian” notion ever excogitated by professed Marxists.
In his copy of Machiavelli’s Prince Gramsci had marked this passage:
I say that every Prince must desire to be considered merciful and not cruel. He must, however, take care not to misuse this mercifulness. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel, but his cruelty brought order to Romagna, united it, and reduced it to peace and fealty. If this is considered well, it will be seen that he was really much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid the name of cruelty, allowed Pistoia to be destroyed.
A Prince would prefer to be “merciful and not cruel”; justice imposed from above by tyrants is to be abhorred. But then he has a job to do and it must be done.
Gramsci Edition November 9, 1967