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Happy Birthday, Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci is remembered as a great theorist of modern politics and culture. But he didn’t think big ideas were just a matter for intellectuals — and he insisted that workers must become the leaders of their own organizations.

Antonio Gramsci in 1933. Wikimedia Commons

It’s late at night on Turin’s Via dell’Arcivescovado. A man with a Southern accent shows up at L’Ordine Nuovo’s office, insisting on speaking with the lead editor. For L’Ordine Nuovo is not only the workers’ daily, but also the paper of Antonio Gramsci.

Yet the political climate here in Turin at the start of the 1920s is tense — every night, factory workers do shifts on guard duty to defend the building’s doors. Everyone expects that sooner or later the fascist squads will turn up to wreck the place.

The building is fortified. The workers are armed, and in between the main entrance and the editors’ offices there is a long corridor, a courtyard, a gate, barbed wire, large metallic obstacles, grenades, and machine guns — or so they claim.

The guard on shift looks the man up and down. He sounds like he’s from Naples. But maybe he’s a FIAT company spy, a fascist, or a policeman (or all three). The guard tells him that if he wants to speak with Gramsci, he’ll have to wear a blindfold, so he doesn’t see the defenses.

The “suspicious” visitor is furious — and he turns to leave. But after a few steps, he turns around again and shouts, “Tell Gramsci that Benedetto Croce came for him!”

Gramsci was disappointed to have missed him. But he also laughed — he could hardly imagine Italy’s then most renowned intellectual stumbling around blindfolded looking for Antonio. And he laughed because he was a man of simple humor: sociable, smiling, who often burst out in childish laughter that put everyone in a good mood.

Obstacles in Life

During my last year’s work at Rome’s Gramsci Institute Foundation, I had the chance to study a vast mass of personal testimony on what Gramsci was really like. Spurred on by Fabio Dei, who first introduced me to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and previous research by Maria Luisa Righi and Francesco Giasi, I could really get to grips with the man himself. What I found was a Gramsci used to jokes, to company, and to pranks (whether performed or received) — a man far from the stern, tragic hero we usually imagine.

While Gramsci died as a victim of fascism in 1937, in his life there was no trace of pessimism, if not the famous “pessimism of the intellect.” For Gramsci, it was worth imagining the worst possible situation, from time to time, “in order to be able to marshal all one’s reserves of will and optimism, to be able to overcome the obstacle.”

But Gramsci also suffered from Pott’s disease. This illness often saw him mocked by the mean-spirited — and, indeed, those who didn’t know how to respond to his crushing superiority in argument.

Such was the case in 1925, when he made his only ever speech in the Chamber of Deputies, soon before Benito Mussolini secured full powers. The Fascists in parliament repeatedly interrupted Gramsci’s condemnation of the regime, shouting “Silence, Rigoletto!”

There had been similar insults in his university days, when some of his classmates told his professor Valentino Annibale Pastore: “This Gramsci, you can see he’s nothing but a hunchback.” “Yes, he is a hunchback,” replied the professor, “but what a hunchback!” Just as Paul Cézanne said of Claude Monet: “He is just an eye, but what an eye!”

This illness hounded Gramsci throughout his life — and he died early, as the result of his suffering in a Fascist jail. But it also greatly complicated his everyday life. We could long interrogate what Gramsci would have been if he had not been affected by Pott’s disease. But probably, as Giuseppe Amoretti affectionately put it,

Antonio could not have been otherwise — a different or better Antonio Gramsci is unthinkable. He had to be the flower that nature and society did indeed produce. His physical and human fate had to be great, unique, like those of all geniuses and heroes, for whom there can be neither joy nor pain but only a great, flowered path to be pursued to the end.

But in the Turin of the early 1920s, there was no time to lose — and for Gramsci, his own existential problems often had to play second fiddle. Gramsci was a tireless worker for his sole employer — the working class. But his dealings with the factory workers of Turin were far from simple. For (unlike many intellectuals, then as now) he did not think of the workers as passive subjects.

As Umberto Calosso put it in a session of the Constituent Assembly in 1947, Gramsci thought that the working class was the “aristocracy of the human race” — and that it ought to be treated as such. The relationship between intellectuals and masses had to be “educational,” yes. But the teaching and culture had to go in both directions, from the workers to the intellectuals, and vice versa, constructing a real mass political pedagogy.

For Gramsci, one did not “go out to” the working class, or “head down” to the workers to bring them the good word: in his vocabulary, one “went up to the working class.” The perspective was thus reversed. As one of his “pupils” in prison put it, “around him we did not feel that weight, that distance that a worker almost always feels when speaking with an intellectual. He did not treat or consider us mere material instruments of social upheaval, incapable of becoming conscious, intelligent protagonists of the revolution.”

Becoming Protagonists

It was in order to set that mass political pedagogy in motion that Gramsci created L’Ordine Nuovo in 1919. There were three other editors: Angelo Tasca, a dedicated opponent of World War I; the future Communist Party general secretary Palmiro Togliatti; and Umberto Terracini, who was in 1948 one of the signatories to Italy’s postwar constitution.

All of them were under thirty years old; all went on to be persecuted by Mussolini. Tasca and Togliatti were forced into exile; the other two were condemned to forty-five years’ imprisonment by the Tribunale Fascista. All of them, as Terracini later put it, were united only by a diffuse passion for proletarian culture: “We wanted to do, do, do.”

And there was no lack of work to be done. The great massacre of World War I had ended just months earlier, giving Italy’s popular classes nothing but a million deaths. Turin was a powder keg, the working-class fury was tangible, and the workers no longer believed in the merely “verbal radicalism” of the old Socialist Party, never able to put its “revolutionary” rhetoric into practice.

In the meantime, however, events in Russia had proclaimed that Marx was great and Lenin was his prophet: the common profession of faith was “Peace, Bread, Land.” Red October was the hope of the oppressed, and for the most politicized sectors of the Italian and global working class, the Bolsheviks were the example to follow.

In Italy, the most Bolshevik of all were the editors of L’Ordine Nuovo in Turin. The spark was bound to catch, and within two years, the workers’ movement was ablaze. The Biennio Rosso of 1919–20 saw a pre-insurrectionary climate: strikes followed one after another, the factories were occupied, and the workers armed themselves, becoming Red Guards. Even during the occupations, production kept going without the bosses — showing that the workers could run society.

What had hitherto been known as Italy’s own “Motor City,” a center of auto production, became the City of Factory Councils, the city that journalists from around the world came to visit: the “Mecca of Italian communism,” the “Italian Petrograd.” Workers thus asserted their power not only through “military” force but also, and most important, at the level of the collective intellect — that of a working class capable of substituting for the bosses.

The bosses were — quite rightly — terrorized by all this. For them, this world upside-down was unbearable, scandalous. Only fascism — bludgeoning the workers — could restore the order that supposedly democratic liberal institutions were no longer able to build on the grounds of consent.

But these were still the years before the Fascists’ March on Rome. And L’Ordine Nuovo’s office was a hive of activity. It was the epicenter of the political struggle in the city, and every afternoon it saw a “parade” of people visiting Gramsci. There were comrades from the local Communist fraction; leaders of the youth and women’s movement; union chiefs; intellectuals; Red Guards; former professors of Antonio’s; rank-and-file comrades; and even those without a party.

As we might imagine, this intense engagement made sure that L’Ordine Nuovo never lost touch with the real political movement. But the constant parade of visitors did create problems for Gramsci, who often didn’t manage to finish the articles he had been asked to produce. Sometimes, as another editor, Mario Montagnana, recalled, Gramsci was literally forced to write:

At 9 or 10 at night, when there were no “visitors,” an editor would come to Gramsci and say point-blank: “No one else is coming in until the article’s ready.” The key was turned in the lock, a comrade stood in the corridor to ward off the “pests,” and an hour or so later, Gramsci finally delivered, on two or three little sheets the size of the palm of a hand, an article written in clear, dense handwriting, almost without corrections.

But apart from these small inconveniences, this continual coming and going each afternoon allowed the paper to achieve the objective it had set itself in its first editorial. That is, to become a training ground for the popularization of all the most advanced political-cultural tendencies of the time. This helped concretize what would be one of Gramsci’s “obsessions”: the training of party cadres.

Gramsci was well aware that it was much easier to build a small group of leaders than to form a vast mass of middling leaders. Leaders who had to represent the flower of the working class and go on to constitute the backbone of the Communist Party. And all of Gramsci’s patience and potency for pedagogy were expressed in this formation process, as he continually urged comrades to study, convincing them that there were not to be some revolutionaries on the barricades and others behind a desk — rather, everyone had to master culture, the greatest ally of action.

Critical Pedagogy

In this “Socratic” work, Gramsci was always critical of the mistakes his comrades made. But as Montagnana put it, in his criticisms, “there was never anything negative, anything discouraging, nothing that made the comrades lose confidence in their own strength.” Rather, Gramsci’s was a deeply human frankness, never marked by personal harshness — a pedagogy developed in the course of day-to-day activity

We shouldn’t delude ourselves that Gramsci was just a gentle-hearted Socrates. Rather, he was extremely severe and merciless, not only with adversaries but also with all those comrades whom, once having reached political “maturity,” were held to a high, indeed impeccable standard, so that they might in turn be teachers for others.

Particularly telling is a letter that Gramsci sent to his comrade Vincenzo Bianco in 1924, remembering how he made one of his first pupils on the editorial board, Andrea Viglongo, “rewrite the articles from the beginning, up to three or four times, turning them from eight columns long to one and a half.” He reached his merciless epilogue: “And Viglongo, who had been a bungler, ended up writing rather well, so much that I imagined he would become a great man and distance himself from us. So, I no longer play the pedagogue with young men of his type: if I still could, I would do so only with workers, who have no ambition to become great bourgeois journalists.”

We are used to thinking of Gramsci almost only as an intellectual. It might, then, seem strange to read the judgment of Giovanni Parodi, for whom writing made up a lesser part of Gramsci’s activity, while “his greatest contribution came through oral and practical teaching.”

Yet Parodi himself embodied this pedagogical mission perfectly. Having entered the factory at age fourteen, this worker-leader raised his political culture (and technical knowledge) to the point that he could manage production at FIAT’s Centro plant during the factory occupations. As proof of the “world turned upside-down” that was post-1918 Turin, there is even a famous photo showing the workers sat around the boss Giovanni Agnelli’s desk. Among them, leading the factory council, was Parodi.

Rare Alchemy

Much more could be said in trying to explain the unrepeatable alchemy that developed around L’Ordine Nuovo. What trick was there behind Gramsci? How could a periodical dealing in such complex themes have become “the workers’ paper”? Why were Red Guards willing to die to defend its office from fascists? And most of all: What created that interchange of affects, solidarity, and hard struggles through which a half-blind, disheveled weakling, thirty years old and from a faraway island, could have become an interpreter of working-class interests?

Biographical factors certainly are important here. Though Gramsci came from a petty-bourgeois family, he spent his childhood in extreme destitution on account of the jailing of his father (a clerk), convicted of embezzlement in 1900. True, his exceptional intelligence transformed Gramsci into one of the brightest minds of European culture. But this did not erase the memory of a life of hardships and material deprivation caused by this sudden drop in social class.

Indeed, if we proceed a bit further along in time, we see that he arrived at Turin University with such a miserly student grant that he had to pick between buying wood for the stove or having dinner. Or, as Camilla Ravera put it:

Gramsci never had much money, and what he did have he spent on books. At times, he had so little that he could not even buy socks and came along to the newspaper [office] wearing shoes alone.

Togliatti, also at Turin University, had lost his own father to cancer. But while of modest background, at least he did not have to pay rent (he lived with his family), whereas Gramsci’s mother had to rack up debts to send money to her son. Moreover, Gramsci was Sardinian to his bones, and he retained a vivid memory of the miserable, lonely, and uncertain life of many of his fellow islanders.

In the memories related by Teresa, Gramsci’s favorite sister, we can find one of the most telling images of his Sardinian childhood. Since they could not afford any toys, they instead learned to make them for themselves: “I made straw dolls that I dressed in little pieces of colorful cloth, Nino made boats, sailing ships, or funny little birds with a feather on their head. Then we organized lotteries. Each piece had a number and all the kids from nearby, the children of well-off landowners, came to try their luck. Instead of money, they gave us an apple or a pear.”

Of course, we can’t reduce the greatness and the complexity of Gramsci to purely biographical factors. But there’s a clear link between the harshness of the life he had to endure and his ability to place himself in service of the subaltern classes — even to the point of sacrificing his own life.

Beyond his fundamental capacity to listen and empathize, his uniqueness probably lay in the rare alignment of this prodigious brain, the forma mentis of an intellectual, and this material, lived experience, similar to that of a worker.

Perhaps this was the real secret to Gramsci — the one that brought the world what partisan and future Socialist president Sandro Pertini would call “the most ingenious politician I have met on my path, whose death left a profound void in not only the Communist Party but the whole Italian and international workers’ movement — a void that no one has ever been able to fill.”

We can be sad of that, even today. But on January 22 — the day of Gramsci’s birth — we celebrate his life. So happy birthday, Antonio.