Antonio Gramsci and Communism Today

 

     by Gaither Stewart

 

“Telling the truth is always revolutionary.”

           

Today I visited the tomb of Antonio Gramsci in the Poets’ Cemetery in Rome, a final resting place for artists, poets, writers and illustrious foreigners and lovers of Italy. An inconspicuous urn resting in the center of the mound contains the ashes of the philosopher, Marxist thinker and founder of the Italian Communist Party. The tombstone bears only his name and his dates—1891-1937. The fresh red flowers indicate that the site is regularly tended.

            I visited the tomb of Gramsci because I wanted to speak of one of the men in my mind most representative of the better side of tormented Twentieth century Italy, an advocate of a new social-political-economic structure. Less known to non-Europeans, Gramsci was a major figure in shaping progressive thought from the early XX century.

I wanted to speak of Gramsci today because the Italy that many people love is in danger. The TV magnate and one of the world’s richest men, Silvio Berlusconi, has governed Italy for the last five years during which Italy has reached depths of reaction that would cause Gramsci’s progressive spirit to wing its way to other worlds. Now, the man who compares himself to Napoleon and calls to mind Gramsci’s adversary, the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, is vying for a second term.

The figure of Antonio Gramsci is emblematic of the profound dichotomy between progress and reaction marking Europe since the end of the Nineteenth century. I imagine that the Marxist Gramsci would have ambivalent feelings about his neighbors in the Poets’ Cemetery: Lying near him are dozens of “White Russians,” the adversaries of the Bolshevik revolution in Tsarist Russia in 1917, which Gramsci supported. At the same time, the culture of the Russian exiles was dedicated to maintaining the hegemony of the Russian upper class over the masses, which Gramsci opposed.

Gramsci must have had sympathy for the progressive English poets, John Keats and Percy Byshe Shelley, who lie under two pines in a distant corner of the same cemetery. Keats  (“I saw pale kings, and princes too” from his La Belle Dame san merci) wrote, as Gramsci must have at some point, “I am ambitious to do the world some good.”

Keats arrived in Rome a sick man—as Gramsci was all his life—and died at age twenty-six after choosing the Poets’ Cemetery for his resting place. Shelley, who preferred “painful pleasures to easier ones”, also lived his last years in Italy where he died in a Mediterranean storm near Lerici and joined his friend Keats a year later.

As much as he appreciated their culture and admired Keats’ universal words, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ Antonio Gramsci did not worship all the names of the Western literary canon because, he believed, there was usually an unacceptable ideology involved in their canonization. In his Selections from the Prison Notebooks he writes of the difficulty of intellectuals to be free of the dominant social group; he was mistrustful of the esprit de corps and the compromises running through the intellectual community.

 

Born in Sardinia, Gramsci moved to Turin in 1913. At the university he came into contact with the Socialist movement then strong in that north Italian city. He was a co-founder of the Italian Communist Party in 1921 and became its head the year after. He was elected to Parliament in 1923. Three years later he was arrested by the Fascist police and spent most of the rest of his life in prison.

            Like most great men Gramsci hoped to change the world. His point of departure was the Marxist idea that everything in life is determined by capital. The class that controls capital is the dominant class. The capitalist class formulates its ideology to secure its control—or in Gramscian language, its hegemony—over the people. Class struggle results when the people try to change the rules and take power. The task of intellectuals is to lead and act politically in order to change the world. “Let men be judged by what they do, not what they say.”

Earlier than others of his generation, the Marxist Gramsci separated from Leninism. He knew nothing of Lenin until 1917 and Lenin had never even heard of Gramsci. Leninism was only one ingredient in Gramsci’s theory for social change.

Leninism is now largely history, while many of Gramsci’s contributions to Socialist thought are intact. Leninism is demagogy, the opposite of Gramscian intellectual pursuit and culture. In Gramscian thinking revolutionary violence is not the only way to change things. He was interested in political action, a political movement, as is Socialism today. Political activity is the path to challenge the hegemony of the capitalist class. Though a revolutionary, he did not advocate a Leninist totalitarian world outlook.

Gramsci amended Marx’s conviction that social development originates only from the economic structure. Gramsci’s distinction of culture was a major advance for radical thought, and it still holds today. Although culture doesn’t lead social change, it is just a step behind.

The Italian Marxist recognized that political freedom is a requisite for culture; if religious or political fanaticism suppresses the society, art will not flower. To write propaganda or paint conformist art is to succumb to the allures and/or the coercion of the reigning system. For that reason, most artists, like Keats and Shelly, are countercurrent. That is also why artists should stay far away from the White House or the Elysées Palace.

 

WHO LOVES COMMUNISM?

Rightwing regimes adore Communism. Just the word “Communist” sets their hearts a flutter. Communism in Italy is the scarecrow that terrorism is in America. In countries with less solid democratic traditions, the threat of Communism has been exploited by reactionary forces to establish dictatorial regimes. Nearly every day you can see it in action. Like terrorism, Communism was the excuse for emergency laws in the Philippines and Peru as it was in Chile and Argentina. Emergency laws, special prisons, torture, the sky is the limit in the war against the Communist bugaboo.

Though the Stalinist Communism in East Europe failed long ago and those states disappeared, the European Right—in Italy, France, Spain, Greece— continues to raise the specter of the “Communist” threat to “family” and “our values.”

But what is Communism today? In the minds of non-Communists, Communism is still associated with the former USSR. Yet, Communistic ideas are as old as man: a social system characterized by the community of goods and the absence of private property. Such ideas marked the organization of the first Christian communities. As a social theory Communism first appeared in ancient Greece advocating the community of all goods. In the Nineteenth century Communistic ideas inspired reformists all over Europe, ideas of equality and the abolition of private property. Marx summed things up with his motto: “From each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs.”

Communist parties born last century from the European Socialist movement called themselves Marxist. The totalitarian parties of East Europe called themselves Communist, but their states were called Socialist republics. Using the name Communist and Socialist they blackened and spoiled the idea that inspired earlier reformists.

Today, Communist slogans sound more utopian than threatening. Today, Communism is nearly a myth, abstract even in countries that call themselves Communist, like China.

 

With the broadening of the European Union toward the East the question of Communism is recurrent today since the EU is formed by peoples with opposite perceptions of it. For East Europeans, Communism was a nightmare. Nor was the exit from totalitarian regimes in East Europe a happy one in that it led some of those countries to blind faith in a savage market economy and abandonment of the spirit of social solidarity.

However, for many people in the world the word Communism is not a dirty word. Though the totalitarian regimes in East Europe vanished and Communist parties everywhere are marginalized, for the 450,000,000 people of the twenty-five nations of the European Union the memory of Communism is alive, even though controversial. Though Communism in practice is no longer a credible alternative to free market democracy, though it no longer aims at revolution and though it is crushed by its Soviet totalitarian past, its memory is alive. The question of Communism has not been settled.

In West Europe, Communists led the resistance against Nazism. In post-WWII, Communism was at the center of the political opposition. After the fall of Communism, the anti-Communist Pole, Pope John Paul II, wrote that Communism was necessary to combat unbridled Capitalism. In the year before his death, Pope Karol Wojtyla made a famous pronouncement concerning the evils of our times: “Nazism,” he wrote, “was the absolute evil, and Communism the necessary evil,” with the emphasis on “necessary.”

Reformed Communist parties abound in modern Europe. In Italy, Communist parties are integrated into progressive forces and have well over ten per cent of the national vote. Communist parties play political roles in France, Spain and other countries, scandalizing only the extreme Right. The original ideas of Communism survive chiefly as a promise and a theoretical alternative to rampant capitalism. It is a brake on the dismantling of the social state.

Communism has always had multiple faces—political, social, economic, and cultural. In some places its roots were deep in society; in some it still enters into traditional political parties as in Italy and France. Perhaps its very complexity, its Christian ideals on one hand and its economic promises on the other, explain why the idea is still alive.

Karl Marx wrote in 1848 that the ghost of Communism haunted Europe. Today, it is chiefly the memory of that ghost that resists. The ghost however is so powerful that the political Right regularly dangles its threat before the eyes of voters each time they go to the polls.

 

            Residues of Communist culture, the spark of utopia that all men desire, partially explain the spirit of anti-capitalism in the world and hostility toward the United States. The memory of Communism also explains the resistance of the social state to an unfettered market economy. It offers an alternative view of history, another approach to the present, and for some a vision of the future.

Antonio Gramsci was one of the early critics of the structures of Stalinist Communism, even though he did not live to experience the total degeneration of Soviet Communism. He didn’t know the full extent of Stalin’s purges, of the repressions and the deportations of entire peoples, and of the transformation of Communism into Soviet nationalism.

After Stalin’s death, the revelation of his crimes at the famous XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 shook the world. That same year the arrival of Soviet tanks in Communist Budapest to crush the uprising of Hungarian workers was the last straw for Western Communists. In those ideological times, some Western Communists recalled Gramsci’s reservations. Many broke with Moscow. The relationship between West European Communism and the USSR deteriorated. As one Italian Communist recently recalled of the year 1956, “the age of innocence was over.”   

 

Berlusconian Italy more than other West European countries has imitated the USA in an effort to convert Italy’s social state into a cold, market economy. Some of Italy’s social system has been dismantled but the conversion has not worked and economic growth is 0.0 %. Polls indicate that Italians will vote him out of power in April for that reason.

The problem of modern market economies is the distribution of wealth. As in the USA, the inequalities between rich and poor in Italy, in much of Europe, have never been greater. The richest five per cent of Italy controls a disproportionate part of the nation’s wealth.  While the gap between the rich and poor is widening everywhere, free market exponents cry for more and more “freedom”, that is more freedom for the rich to become richer. But everywhere there is a missing factor in the equation: equality. Equality is out. Equality! alarmed free marketers exclaim. An infringement on my freedom! Free marketers cry and wring their hands and point out the “American way of life.”

An inexplicable mystery for free marketers is that people in Social Democratic countries in Scandinavia enjoy the world’s highest standard of living. These mixed economies, part social, part capitalist, work. There, the rich pay dear. They grumble and dodge taxes, but in the end a majority of them accept higher taxes for they realize that future generations of their society will be the better for it.

            We don’t need economists or theoreticians to tell us that inequality is incompatible with freedom. Freedom, now one of the most complex words in our vocabulary, is often an evil word. What kind of freedom? Freedom for whom? At whose expense? The truth is that the poor and miserable are seldom represented politically. Who represents the poor in America’s near one-party system? America’s poor, who are poorer than the poor of much of Europe where parts of the staggering social state still survive.

            Antonio Gramsci today would agree with political economist Ralf Dahrendorf that democracy must guarantee both fundamental rights like ownership of property and also a decent economic status to everyone, as exists in Scandinavia, as still exists in some of Europe. There is little evidence of many infringements on the rights of the rich anywhere; but as far as the poor are concerned, the minimum wage is hardly a sign of equality.

The social economy recognizes the existence of inequalities and places limits on them. Market economy theoreticians, on the other hand, explain that inequality is quite a good thing; it is a stimulus to improve one’s position by hard work or innovation; success is a hope for all, an aspiration, something to strive for; it makes a society more vital.

I do not believe that social and economic inequalities are a necessary price to pay for the economic freedom (that word again!) of a few. First, let’s redistribute wealth dramatically. Then we can talk about acceptance of inequalities as a boast to economic progress.

Gramsci like other Marxists insisted on the role of intellectuals to lead the way toward reform. Gramsci considered mass media the instrument used by the dominant class to spread its hegemony, but he pointed out that the media can also be used to counter that hegemony. Throughout the world today we see the confrontation—still unequal—between establishment media on one side and the spread of alternative media on the other: ezines, independent publishers and filmmakers and the free press. 


© Gaither Stewart
Rome 2006

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in Italy and various European countries, he today writes fiction. He has authored novels and short story collections. His collections, Icy Current, Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger, Once In Berlin, are published by Wind River Press. (http://www.windriverpress.com/ or http://stewart.windriverpress.com/) He lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome. Other essays and stories by Gaither are available in Archives.