revolutionary reflections | The Legacy of Antonio Gramsci

With the crisis in Tory Hegemony, and many gearing up for a left government in Britain, the question of popular rule is becoming an urgent and strategic issue. Key ideas and theories need revaluing and upgrading for our times. In this piece Gian Luigi Deiana  from the Casa Gramsci institute in Sardinia discusses the life and legacy of Antonio Gramsci. He situates Gramsci within the work of the Casa Gramsci, and the question of popular sovereignty today.

The piece was originally delivered as a talk in Italian at the Edinburgh People’s Festival (2017) and has been translated by Alessio Albanese, with additional interpolations by Joe Sabatini.


Early life

Dear friends and dear comrades,

When we ask ourselves who is Antonio Gramsci, we are inevitably asking ourselves a two-fold question: one related to his personal biography and historical relevance; and another question, perhaps even more important, that interrogates the convergence of factors which transformed a fragile and ill-fated individual into a figure of international relevance. Paradoxically, we can affirm that this physically weak and ill-fated boy nicknamed ‘Nino’ became the great Gramsci in spite of these challenges and thanks to his unwavering inner strength.

Gramsci was born in 1891 in a small village named Ales, in inland Sardinia. Since his very early years, Antonio was afflicted by illness. At the tender age of three he contracted tuberculosis, which permanently undermined his physical development. Concomitantly, his father lost his job and was arrested under the auspices of fraud, and later condemned to five years in jail. It is worthwhile mentioning that Antonio’s father wasn’t from Sardinia and did not speak the Sardinian language. He was the son of an army officer from the Kingdom of Naples; a Kingdom that had been dismantled some thirty years earlier by Garibaldi’s expedition and the resulting unification of the state of Italy. To make matters worse for the young and ill Antonio, the incarceration of his father also meant that the Gramsci’s family could not count on the paternal figure to provide emotional and financial support. This led to Antonio and his mother having to go and live with her sister in the town of Ghilarza. This was a new and uncharted territory for the young Antonio, at a time when a severe social crisis tragically impoverished Italy and deranged the South and Sardinia into complete poverty and desperation. With the 20th century at the gates, the crisis was becoming global, and the Great War was just around the corner.

It was during this time that Antonio was made aware of his own possible premature death, due to the chronic state of his illness. Nonetheless, his mother, whom within the limits of peasant society had the ability to read and write (a great achievement if one considers her financial and social condition), worked very hard to guarantee to her most vulnerable son a high educational level. And it was through education that Antonio found his calling. Albeit with severe difficulties due to his health, he achieved brilliant high-school results and won a scholarship which allowed him to move to Turin, the city of Fiat, and the most important industrial city in Italy at the time. Here he enrolled at university and undertook courses in glottology and social-linguistics. This provided Antonio with strong analytical tools that he began to utilise with great efficacy within domains such as literary criticism, journalistic activity and political organisation. Unfortunately, however, due to the harsh conditions of his daily living, Antonio did not graduate from university.

Activism in Turin and the Factory Councils

Meanwhile, the First World War had erupted and Antonio, now about twenty years of age, became manager of the Socialist Party, and observed from Turin the revolutionary process which was taking form in Russia. He began to theorise on the necessity for a proletarian organisation modelled on the Soviet.
During this period, industrial centres were born in Turin, known as Factory Councils. These were conceived as autonomous organisms that belonged to workers, and did not answer directly to the Workers’ Union nor to the Party, and their model of political conduct was built on radical proletarian democracy.

Their organ for press and propaganda, ‘L’Ordine Nuovo’, was directed by Gramsci and became the ideological instrument of the masses who had been inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution. While this process had not resulted in a successful revolution, it had given birth to the Communist Party, which was founded in January 1921. The Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was composed of heterogeneous political groups on the left of the political spectrum. Now thirty years of age, Antonio Gramsci represented the Italian referent of the Soviet revolution. After moving to Rome, which epitomised both the geographical and political centre of Italy, he began to frequent the family of two young Russian musicians, and later married Giulia, the older of the two. It is at around this point in his life that Antonio Gramsci became a fundamental pillar within the Left, while in the background the post First World War crisis was destroying the old political and institutional order.

The emergence of Fascism

It is within this climate of general crisis that the fascist movement emerged. Officially declared in 1919, Mussolini and the fascists successfully constructed a legal political party, which, despite its violent and divisive character, was able to impose a dictatorship within a few years.

Gramsci, who by now was a parliamentarian, found himself in the midst of a political hurricane. It was 1925, in Russia, Stalin had begun to attack the institutions of the revolution, and take control over Communist Parties in Europe, while in Italy Mussolini began the fascistic restructuring of all institutions and of civil society. At this point, arrests began and the communist party, by now confined to clandestine activities, had to hold its congress in Lyon, France, in January 1926.

The congressional theses that emerged were developed mostly by Gramsci and contained an extraordinarily lucid analysis of the fascist phenomenon, by now spreading beyond the confines of the Italian national borders. Unfortunately, however, through the banning of ‘L’Ordine Nuovo’ and other press sources. the regime prevented Antonio from disseminating these writings through Italian society. Shortly after, he was arrested by Mussolini’s ‘black shirts’ and condemned to twenty years in jail. With great difficulty, due to being in a strenuous situation of detention and aggravating illness, Antonio’s access to the outside world was severely restricted his sister-in-law Tatiana (his wife by now had moved to Moscow) and his mother. Sadly, however, Antonio would never see his two children, to whom he wrote letters in which his sorrow and distraint were contained by educational teachings, short lessons on history and writing of bed time stories.

Imprisonment and the Prison Notebooks

Writing became his most loyal companion during his last and tragic ten years of life: The Prison Notebooks, which he began to compose in the form of distinct, yet interconnected arguments, resulted in a monumental work, distinguished for its erudition, and for the depth with which Antonio analysed a variety of complex concepts.

Concomitantly, the Spanish Civil War was ravaging, and on April 25th 1937 the Basque city of Guernica was bombed. The aerial bombardment carried out by the Condor Legion from Nazi Germany and the Legionary Aviation of fascist Italy. The bombing was aimed at a disarmed civilian population, and can be seen as a prelude to the Second World War. These horrors elevated the political conscience of the Italian popular vanguard including that of Sardinian volunteers, which participated in defence of the Republic. Volunteers from Sardinia that fought in Spain were, generally speaking, miners and migrants. Among these was Gennaro Gramsci, Antonio’s older brother, whose involvement ended in his internment in a French prison camp. Two days after the devastation in Guernica, Antonio Gramsci died in Rome. Having written thousands of pages, he had finally succumbed to the pressures of his terrible jail conditions and the impact it had on his health.

Impact of Gramsci’s work

Gramsci’s period in jail was accompanied by deepening ideological tensions within the communist movement. Despite his isolation, Antonio continued to participate in the struggle of the Italian Left, thanks to the charisma his name still possessed (which remained intact during the years of the Second World War and the Partisan Resistance). In 1947, ten years after his death, the Prison Notebooks was published â€“ at first in a highly redacted form, and then subsequently in full. However, notwithstanding a progressive opening of Italian culture toward his work, Gramsci’s manuscripts remained largely circumscribed to intellectuals and Italian communists. The 20th century had witnessed a surge in Marxist philosophers, but up until the 1980s the name of Gramsci was less famous than that of Lukàcs, Adorno, Marcuse, Sartre and Fanon to mention but a few. However, Gramsci’s posthumous presence increased, culminating in the international recognition he enjoys today.

Antonio Gramsci’s greatness therefore did not appear suddenly, as it might be insinuated within fashionable literary circles, nor was it borne out of propagandistic diffusion, whether academic or political: it has risen in an expansive manner in diverse circles and in areas of the globe marked by situations historically novel and often remote. Partly as a result of this, it is hard to encapsulate Gramsci within a specific cultural realm. He is certainly a philosopher in the broadest sense and a social philosopher in the amplest meaning of the word. Antonio is a social philosopher who should be recognised as foundational in the way we may look at Enlightenment thinkers such as Hume or Smith, and Ferguson. Like them Gramsci delineated a general vision; an anthropology; a pedagogy; a moral philosophy; and a political theory that speaks today in the name of a more just and more humane world.

By referencing his work alongside the great Scottish Philosophers and the Enlightenment, we get closer to the real specificity of Antonio’s conception of humanity and of people as social beings. While Hume or Smith attributed a disposition of individuals to act as part of human nature, Gramsci attributes this to what he calls social history, with a focus on constant transformations. Gramsci sustains that human societies shouldn’t necessarily remain condemned to the uncontrolled competition of egoistic interests, which results in the exploitation of the masses by a few oligarchs, and the bleeding of the Global South by colonial and neo-colonial financial monopolies. In contrast, he prompts us to aspire to the ‘horizon of liberation’, to egalitarianism and the right to building our very existence independently. Furthermore, Gramsci believes that human history is not determined by ‘natural’ dispositions or an immutable destiny, but instead from humanity’s capacity for historical transformation.

Importantly, Gramsci argues that this cannot materialise solely through the dismemberment of the economic structures of capitalism, as the more dogmatic Marxist school used to teach, but through the exercise of hegemony – in which all groups in society participate in realising their collective capacity to bring about change.

This task needs a continuous intellectual and moral reform and calls for the adherence of intellectuals, educational institutions, and all of the instruments available for the promulgation of culture. It is worthwhile remembering that Antonio Gramsci was also one of the first European thinkers clearly to understand the unitary horizon of European peoples, and their nations – along with the basis on which to launch a political critique of the way this process can be co-opted from above.

These ideas were developed and consolidated within a fascist prison during a period in which Europe was at its most fragmented since World War I. The millennial amalgamation of geography and people, of nations and of states in the European continent was interpreted by Gramsci as a general tendency to a unitary outcome of the historical process, the outcome we are now witnessing in a complicated composition between people-nation (generally subaltern), which refers to the interests of the people within a nation, and nation-state (generally dominant), which demarcates the legal territory of a nation. Antonio Gramsci was able to see a further perspective, that of European unification. We are now counting the cost of the ideal mirage and the actual consequences of this millennial synthesis, and with the hopes and the innumerable contradictions of this complicated process. New tensions, extraordinarily serious, cut through the present times. The political theories of modernity and the systems that grew from it (liberalism, socialism, democracies, etc.) have been profoundly modified and often profoundly changed. In this very complex situation, Gramsci’s thought has been appropriated beyond the confines of the Marxist universe and has entered the cultural heritage of every progressive political tendency and of national stories in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Having largely derived from Gramsci’s theorising, Cultural Studies, Subaltern Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies today constitute areas of investigation and disciplines that focus on the crisis of political systems and the current social order. As a result, these represent the principal vehicle of international diffusion of Antonio Gramsci’s thought. Today this has become a progressive dialogue that takes place internationally within a cultural landscape of scholars, political schools and civil society organisations, enlightened by the ethical path of this little yet great man from Sardinia.

80 years – the ongoing reception of Gramsci

The 27th of April 2017 marked the 80th anniversary of Antonio Gramsci’s death. Since the first decennial, which occurred in 1947 there have been numerous initiatives of a political and intellectual character.
This process began ten years after his death with the first edition of the Prison Notebooks. Their publication under the supervision of Palmiro Togliatti, whom at the time was the General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), resulted in an official version, at a time when Stalinist orthodoxy was at its zenith.

By the time of the second decennial there was greater division within the global Communist movement. The death of Stalin, the Chinese Revolution and above all the Soviet intervention in Hungary of 1956 led to splits and major debates. This can be seen in the reception of Gramsci. Togliatti, on the one hand, sought to deploy the figure of Gramsci as a kingpin in his attempt to consolidate the political culture of the PCI; while on the intellectual side, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poem ‘Gramsci’s Ashes’ had a more subversive intention, and promoted Gramsci’s thought within civil society, outside the ranks of the PCI. This all occurred at a time when the PCI was establishing the Gramsci Institute, which was the Party’s most authoritative instrument of cultural intervention, which then became more prominent than the Party itself.

The third decennial was demarcated by a conference of historical proportion, held in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, in April 1967. The participants in the event reflected the full range of intellectuals interested in Gramsci by this time – liberals and communists, people from Sardinia and the Italian mainland. It was in this conference that we can see how the pressure of events leading up to 1968 were reflected in the new interpretative paths that were being opened up. These included the doctrine of the state, the conceptualisation of civil society, and the anthropology of subaltern groups, among other topics. Unforgettable amongst these was the contribution of Norberto Bobbio and Antonio Pigliaru. A few years later, Sardinia born Antonio Berlinguer was elected as secretary of the PCI. It was within this context that in Ghilarza, the association that was to curate Antonio Gramsci’s home and memory was created.

The forth decennial (1977) was dedicated to the theme of history. Discussions began in conferences in Cagliari in April which were concluded in an important international conference in Florence; the dimension of these events was such that it revealed the worldwide scale of Gramsci’s thought. At the same time, the role of the PCI in Italian society was rapidly changing and as a result, Gramsci’s theme of transformation became crucial.

By 1987, the now decennial conference was dedicated to the moral theme in Gramsci’s work, and this was applied to the radical reality of the Italian crisis and the crisis of the institutional Left. Two years later, in 1989, the PCI concluded its historical parable: new denominations for the party, which began to split into factions and new definitions for reformism, highlighted its metamorphosis. In the background, the novel European and inter-European scenario of neoliberalism succeeded in modifying, in a relatively short period of time, the panorama of culture.

This resulted in the de-classing of authors who up until that point were venerated. This rapid and merciless cultural re-orientation, acted as the vanguard for a large-scale passive revolution, which aimed at challenging the cultural heritage of the 20th century, including classical and critical Marxism, and, in which Gramsci’s work was subjected to the most radical philosophical interrogation.

In 1994, in the midst of the Italian crisis and the erosion of the PCI, the association Casa Gramsci in Ghilarza entered a critical period. A few years later however, Casa Gramsci was rehabilitated on a new basis, free of institutional and party constraints; and presented a plurality that facilitated a more autonomous cultural and political stance.

The conference of 1997 represented a farewell to the past and of the Gramsci that had been largely a product of Italian intellectual confines. It was dedicated to the theme of the 20th century and had as a protagonist, among others, the ‘newly born’ international Gramsci Society. Thus, the figure of Antonio Gramsci entered, once again, the great, terrible and complicated world from the front door.

The convention of 2007 was able to discuss the by now internationally renowned thought of Antonio Gramsci, which had spread to many areas of research, such as Cultural Studies, Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Studies, and was articulated by various congresses in Sardinia and Ghilarza.

The work of the Casa Gramsci today

The Casa Gramsci in Ghilarza continues to draw on Gramsci’s legacy to provide a cultural and political space. The Casa has a library and a media-room, which enables the institute to serve its dual purpose as a museum and space for political ideas. The political aims of the Casa Gramsci Association had been inspired, in the last twenty years, by Gramsci’s reflections on intellectual and moral reform.

At first this existed in scattered proposals, but in 2015 the institute has produced a calendar of Popular Education, and includes a number of programmes that centre on cultural and political work that highlights the role of subaltern groups in history.

The institute held a conference on the cinematographic operas of film Director Nanni Loy on the 20th anniversary of his death. Nanni Loy, who had great knowledge of Gramsci and dedicated his filmography to subaltern groups, produced films that focused on the city of Naples, which he saw as a centre exploring the antagonisms in Italian society, and a place of perpetual crisis in which subaltern groups fought out their antagonism to the ruling order. It might have been for the fascination with Naples’ enigmas that Nanni Loy returned time and time again to the city of Naples, after the epic debut in 1961 in which he reconstructed the city’s insurrection in September 1943 against Nazi occupation, known as the Four Days of Naples.

The institute is not solely focused on cultural heritage, but also on contemporary political interventions. The institute has participated in popular demonstrations against the controversial military base in Sardinia, the Quirra, which is situated in Sardinia’s South West and stretches from the hillside through to the coast and the town of Villaputzu. The demonstrators see the base as a permanent military occupation, in which the military apparatus in Sardinia, forms part of NATO’s chain of bases that enable it to remain on a permanent war footing, while supporting the arms industry and degrading the environment. Weapons manufactured to aid Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, and new military technologies that are experimented on and regularly used against civilian populations in war zones, are being based on Sardinian soil.

In 2017 the Sardinians staged a major protest on April 28th – Sardinia Day, which commemorated the expulsion of the Savoia monarchy in 1794 by a popular revolt. This revolt is also referred to as the Sardinian echo of the French Revolution, and led to a glorious, albeit unfortunate uprising against the feudal system. The spirit of that uprising, however, is still in vogue and for the past two centuries has been at the heart of the political consciousness of Sardinians considered as a people-state. The revolt of 1794 against a foreign monarchy and its oligarchies, continues to inspire the revolt today against the tragedy of the ‘new world order’.

Gramsci and the question of national popular sovereignty

These issues bring into focus current debates on national popular sovereignty that have surfaced in a number of contexts from Greece in its opposition to the Troika to the popular mobilisations around Scottish Independence in 2014. Gramsci’s conception of hegemony and provides a way to understand how it is possible to produce mass movements that unite subaltern groups into a new popular sovereign.

This also allows for new forms of internationalist solidarity. Speaking today in Scotland, it is important to see how the superimposition of the national and social situation in Scotland and Sardinia, despite their heterogeneity in terms of structure and politics, has much in common against a broader capitalist framework. It is also possible to celebrate the work of people like the Scottish poet Hamish Henderson or the scholar of folklore Alan Lomax who have been drawn to carrying out anthropological work in Sardinia and southern Italy and made contributions to the reception of Gramsci’s ideas. Their work reflects a challenge to the political narrow mindedness within the dominant logics in Italy and in the UK, that would treat nations and cultures as separate entities, rather than internally divided and joined across national borders on the basis of shared struggles against much larger state powers.

Culturally this sense of solidarity with small political forces against larger ones, could be seen in the way Sardinians rejoiced when Iceland beat England in the World Cup. This was based on the recognition between two small island nations, restricted to the periphery, when one succeeds against a larger power. Politically and intellectually, when we do not consign this to football, but expand it as a principle, it becomes a magical instant in which an alternative conception of the world is imagined.

Here, it seems, some of the elements that present a fracture within the European Union’s plans converge, both from an economic and a structural viewpoint. The great distortions of the European project supervened in the neoliberal phase, and emergent within the separation between the needs of the masses and the European Union’s governments, which created the prerequisites for Brexit, and, at least in part, resulted in a more acute malaise within the Scottish electorate and between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Another important point of discussion is related to the difficulties that Sardinia is now facing. This is epitomised by the lack of perspective, which was analysed by Gramsci in his political reflection of under-developed areas of the world, in which he discusses internal colonialisms on people-states, and subaltern social groups. These perfectly describe the situation in Sardinia: the non-recognition of the Sardinian language, the demographic collapse due to migration and the estrangement of local productivity. To this we can add a pervasive military presence, an unbalanced tourist industry, and widespread unemployment among young people.

I think, at this point it is possible to recall some warnings that Gramsci offered. Gramsci did not foresee what we today call globalisation; however, he foresaw with surprising clarity the process of European integration and the progressive power shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific. If we focus on the specifics, Gramsci affirmed that historically, the fundamental actor is the nation and that a progressive horizon imposes that the goal of a nation is internationalism. The nation, in turn, is a process filled with complications and contradictions; and this is used to explain the presence of dominant nations, dominated nations, unrecognised nations, impaired nations, exploited nations, repressed nations, cancelled nations and so on. Thus, the process ‘nation’ necessitates the formation and permanence of a conception of the world that is created within people and makes possible the cementing of a collective will capable of hegemony, in which the productive class is capable of becoming the managerial class, or ruling class. The relationship between the culture of the ruling class, popular culture, and subaltern cultures, creates the combination of two fundamental ideological conditions for the maturation of novel and innovative conceptions of the world, two conditions that need to flourish and ripen within subaltern groups: the spirit of separation and the simultaneous connection between intellectuals and the people. Here I propose two short quotations:

The spirit of division, which is the progressive acquisition of one’s own historical conscience, requires a complex ideological work (Notebook 3, 49).

Every trace of autonomous initiative on behalf of subaltern groups should be of inestimable value for the integrative historian (Notebook 25, 2).

Now, in the hope that Scotland can aspire to a new internationalism based on national independence from the rest of the UK, and if this can be seen by other nations not as a sign of rupture but as a way of building a European identity; this might create for Sardinia, and other countries like Catalonia and Basque Country an historically plausible and historically progressive antecedent to reach the same outcome. I think that this perspective is all the more possible if it finds its soul outside of the material forces of oligarchy and the interests of parasites, and if this is rooted in the historical consciousness of the working classes and of the new generation.

While remaining on topic, I am going to shift the focus away from Scotland and Sardinia to propose a short consideration on a dramatic national problem and on a formidable contemporary political figure deeply inspired by Gramsci: this is the Kurdish issue, bathed in blood for dozens of years and divided between four states each of which has been pitched into in the evil vortex of war, and of Abdullah Öcalan, head of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan and detained since 1999 in the Turkish jail of Imrali. Our popular school of Ghilarza has sowed a fruitful relationship with Kurdish scholars and militants of the Rojava region; a Region that has become renowned through the media for its war against ISIS, for the liberation of Kobane and for the experimentation of a model of integral autonomy. Ocalan has drawn on Gramsci to show that the strategy in Rojava is the strategy of PKK, of a national revolution without nationalism, made possible by the re-birth of an ideological identity of the Kurdish nation and by the practice of a model of integral democracy. These two aspects: ideological identity and integral democracy, are closely linked and have matured into a conception of the world that draws on the historical awareness of the ways in which the region has been transformed since the days of ancient Mesopotamia and its civilization; it focuses on the way in which this historical consciousness was ‘switched off’, coercively induced by imperial successions in Northern Syria, the Van territories and the Zagos mountains, which has created the conditions of feudal servitude and subaltern colonialism. These include the collaboration of agrarian oligarchy, the subjugation of intellectuals and the spiritual and material misery of society. Ocalan’s writings from jail illuminates the possibility of a renaissance in the Middle East. A possibility that has no time to waste and that, in light of the tragic situation in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, is now an absolute necessity for the entire world.

It is, without a doubt, an historical urgency to be interested in Gramsci’s thought from a large part of the intellectual world, and this would include the reading of the works of Edward Said. Gramsci describes this urgent situation as an historical change in which an ideological identity, be it pre-modern, becomes the protagonist of integral democracy using the term catharsis. This demarcates the conquest of real hegemony by the active and progressive part of society, which becomes capable of representing all of the people even within the cruel condition of a general civil war.

Gramsci asserted: ‘we can use the term catharsis to indicate the passage from an egotistical-emotional stage to an ethical-political stage’. This also suggests the passage from the objective to the subjective, and from necessity to liberty as an instrument to create a new ethical-political form. The humanist catharsis in the Middle East is the most challenging and the most urgent, of which delay finds in the West its causes and its responsibilities.

In conclusion

We can now return, to conclude, to an homage which is due to the unarmed heroes of the subaltern classes: I have cited earlier your compatriot Hamish Henderson and my compatriot Nanni Loy. In my imagination, they met in Naples in September 1943, when the ‘D Day’ groups entered the city liberated by the insurgents and where the photographer Robert Capa took pictures of the crowd and the students of the Vomero Lyceum who had died in the assault to the arsenal. My imagination also unifies my Sardinian comrades, struggling at the military base of Quirra, with the herdsmen and farmers of Orgosolo, a town in the Sardinian mountains that in 1969 rose against the project of this military installation on their land. I propose then some documents (exposed in the exhibition) in the form of photography and chants, as a gift to thank you for your invitation and of your hospitality, in memory of Nanni, who died in 1995, and of Hamish, who left us in 2002. Antonio Gramsci referred to the example of people like these when he proposed that enthusiasm is at the root of all intelligence.