April 27, 2011

The Heretical Radical: Antonio Gramsci of Sardinia

Antonio Gramsci
By Niccolò Graffio
“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” – Antonio Gramsci: Letter from Prison (December 19th, 1929)

Prior to the epiphany that launched me on my journey down the road of ethnic consciousness, I, like so many others, had been inculcated by the American public and private school systems (as well as the mass media) into believing that almost everything great that had ever been done under the sun was done by people with light hair, eyes and skin. Beginning in kindergarten, a long procession of these people from Christopher Columbus to Neil Armstrong and from George Washington to George S. Patton, Jr, was paraded before me. Great minds from the likes of Isaac Newton to Carl Friedrich Gauss and from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson were, as well.

Even back then I wondered what, if anything, people from my area of the world, the Mediterranean, had done to compare with the accomplishments of these people. Though Columbus was originally from Genoa my educators were quick to point out his ancestors had come from farther north in Europe. In fact, the people who wrote my textbooks in school (and directed the movies I watched) would have had me believing all the greats of the ancient Mediterranean world bore a striking resemblance to Northern Europeans. Who reading this, for example, hasn’t seen a Hollywood epic showing ancient Greeks and Romans with British looks and accents (at least among the upper classes, anyway)?

To this day the mighty Alexander the Great of Macedon is portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes, in spite of the fact the earliest painting of him still extant shows a man with decidedly different features. For centuries painters have portrayed the great Jesus Christ as a man with unmistakably Nordic features, though most modern historical scholars would have a serious problem with that one.
Detail of the mosaic discovered at Pompeii showing 
Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issus
Perhaps the height of ludicrousness occurs in the realm of physical anthropology. Throughout the 20th century physical anthropologists like Giuseppe Sergi and Carleton S. Coon taxonomically categorized most of those who lived around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea as members of the Mediterranean race (or sub-race, in the case of Coon). Beginning in the later part of the 20th century, however, a movement began (“Race is a social construct!”) to do away with such typologies, in spite of the growing genetic evidence to the contrary.

Thus, while in the minds of many if not most we are not “White”, we also do not merit a classification of our own, even though critics of the concept of a Mediterranean sub-race continue to admit to the existence of distinctive features of Mediterranean populations. In a sick sort of way, we do not exist!

Armed with the knowledge I have accrued in my lifetime, it has become apparent to me why this is so. Once I began my saunter down the long road which led to the awakening of ethnic awareness within me, I soon began to realize just how worthless those textbooks and movies really were in terms of their historical value.

A good part of that journey was in discovering and documenting the existence of members of our ethnos who could rightfully be considered great. One question, though, I must answer before I continue: how do you define “great” or “greatness”? This is important because these words can mean many things to many people.

Before I offer my opinion (and it will be only that, my opinion) it must be noted you will probably never find a person universally regarded as great. One man’s saint is another man’s demon. One man’s intellectual giant will be another man’s talented provincial, or worse. The best, therefore, one can hope for is a consensus of opinion.

For purposes of this discussion, a good definition I have found comes from the American Heritage Dictionary. It goes as follows:

“important; highly significant or consequential.”

When reading this article it behooves me to urge you, dear reader, to keep this definition fresh in your mind. This is because the subject matter is a man who in life was a highly controversial individual, and who remains so to this day. When I was first asked to write about him I must confess I had misgivings due to my own antipathy towards Marxism and its adherents. With apologies to no one, I make no secret of my disdain towards totalitarian philosophies, of either the Left or Right, as nowhere are the pages of history so soaked in blood than in those written by the followers of these movements.

Giovanni Gentile
After careful thought, however, I realized I must set aside my own personal feelings in the interests of historical veracity. For just as Giovanni Gentile, “the philosopher of Fascism” deserves a page in the history books of our people, so does Antonio Gramsci.

In Gramsci’s case there is a double controversy due to his Sardinian/Albanian background. Many if not most in the Nuova Patria Meridionale movement do not regard Sardinians as true Southerners. Many Sardinians, I’m sure, share this feeling. I do not share it. If we ever manage to reclaim our independence from the pseudo-state monstrosity known as Italy and the Sardinians wish to join us, as far as I’m concerned they should be more than welcomed to do so. Again, though, that is only my opinion.

As for his Albanian background? Anyone who has done a study of the history of Southern Italy already knows that communities of ethnic Albanians (dubbed Arbëreshë) have dotted the landscape for centuries, especially in places like Calabria. Though these people have maintained a distinct ethnic identity down to modern times, no doubt many of them assimilated into the general population.

Antonio Gramsci was born January 22nd, 1891 in the small town of Ales on the island of Sardinia. He was the fourth of seven children born to Francesco and Giuseppina (née Marcias) Gramsci. His father, born in Gaeta in 1860, was the son of a colonel in the Bourbon gendarmerie of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Some of his paternal ancestors had emigrated there from Albania in 1821. Giuseppina Marcias, a native Sardinian, was born in the town of Ghilarza in 1861.

From birth some of the many health problems that would plague Antonio his entire life were already evident. A frail child, at the age of four a servant dropped him. His family would later claim his physical deformities (among other things, a hunchback) resulted from this. His childhood was marred by poverty and hardship. Upon reaching adulthood he stood less than 5’ tall.

In 1898 Francesco Gramsci was arrested and convicted of embezzlement, then shipped off to prison. This reduced the already impoverished family to destitution. Giuseppina was forced to move the family back to Ghilarza and Antonio (affectionately called “Nino” by his mother) had to abandon his schooling to help out the family until his father was released from prison in 1904. This fact in no small measure affected his attitude towards his parents. People who knew him well commented on how he never felt particularly close to his father. He regarded his mother, however, with a deep affection and credited her humor and wisdom with getting him through the rougher parts of his childhood.

Antonio’s first exposure to Socialism was through his older brother Gennaro, with whom he lodged while completing his studies at secondary school in Cagliari, a city in Sardinia. Gennaro had previously served in the Italian military and his time on the mainland transformed him into a militant socialist. At this time, though, Antonio was less interested in Socialism than in trying to improve the lot of impoverished Sardinian miners and peasants.

In 1911, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin. It was here he would meet his future friend and Marxist cohort Palmiro Togliatti. While at Turin he developed an interest in linguistics. At this time the city of Turin was undergoing rapid industrialization, with many workers pouring into the factories from poorer regions of Italy, including Gramsci’s native Sardinia. With the establishment of trade unions, Turin became a hotbed of radicalism. In 1913 Antonio Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI).

Financial constraints coupled with poor health and an increasing commitment to politics caused Gramsci to abandon his studies in early 1915. By this time, though, he had amassed an impressive knowledge of history and philosophy. His talents and keen intellect did not go unnoticed. In 1916 he became co-editor of the Piedmont edition of Avanti!, the official organ of the PSI. Ironically, previously the editor of the paper’s main edition in Milan was the man who would later become Antonio Gramsci’s political archenemy - Benito Mussolini. By late 1917, Gramsci was a member of the party’s Provisional Committee and the editor of Il Grido del Popolo (It: “The Outcry of the People”), a socialist newspaper.

In April, 1919, Gramsci, together with his friend Palmiro Togliatti, Angelo Tasca and Umberto Terracini set up a weekly newspaper called L’Ordine Nuovo (It: “New World Order”). Later that same year the PSI voted by a large majority to join the Third International, a global association of Communist groups. It was around this time that Gramsci and his cohorts came to the attention of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Communist usurper of Russia, who viewed their faction as being closest to the Bolshevik spirit. By giving them his approval, the status of Gramsci and his circle greatly increased in the eyes of Italian radicals.

Gramsci’s main rival at this time in the PSI was a man named Amadeo Bordiga. Bordiga, unlike Gramsci, was a strict anti-parliamentarian who favored overthrowing the Italian government by force and using force to establish “a dictatorship of the proletariat”. Though the two men were often at odds, Gramsci joined Bordiga in establishing the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) on January 21st, 1921. This was done mainly because the two felt the PSI was becoming too centrist in its outlook.

Though subordinate to Bordiga in the PCI, Gramsci almost immediately began locking horns with him. In spite of being an anti-parliamentarian, interestingly, Bordiga opposed the militant anti-fascist Arditi del Popolo (It: “People’s Squads”) while Gramsci and Lenin favored them. Gramsci felt the groups were needed to protect socialists from the terroristic depredations of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, as well as to oppose the rise of Fascism in general in Italy. Bordiga, on the other hand, opposed the Arditi due to the presence of non-communists in its ranks. In the end, Gramsci and his comrades in the L’Ordine Nuovo group would follow the non-violent, legalist strategy of the PCI.

In 1922 Antonio Gramsci ventured to Moscow as a representative of the PCI. While there he met Julia Schucht, a young violinist. They would later marry and have two sons: Delio and Giuliano.

While Gramsci was in the Soviet Union, dark clouds quickly gathered over Italy. Powerful industrial interests in Northern Italy, fearful of growing Marxist influence in the country, threw their weight behind the National Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini, which caused a surge in its ranks. From October 22-29, 1922, Mussolini staged his “March on Rome”, at the invitation of King Victor Emmanuel III, who appointed him Prime Minister.

Now de facto ruler of Italy, “Il Duce” moved quickly to consolidate his power. Throughout 1923 he passed repressive measures against opposition political parties, throwing many of their members in jail, including Amadeo Bordiga. By 1924 Bordiga was expelled from the PCI and Antonio Gramsci was recognized as its head. Forces beyond his control, however, worked to make his command a short-lived one.

In that same year he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies for the Veneto region. In his one and only speech to the Chamber, Gramsci delivered a memorable oratory condemning Fascism. His fate was sealed.

I’ve always believed the truest measure of the worth of a man can be found, not in the opinions of his friends, but of his enemies. In November, 1929 Mussolini and the Fascists completed their eradication of Italian democracy and then paid Antonio Gramsci a supreme compliment – they openly violated his parliamentary immunity by having him arrested! At his ‘trial’ the prosecutor (a Fascist official) told the court, “For 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning.” He was immediately given a sentence of five years which the following year was increased to the 20 promised. He was thereafter dropped off in a dungeon in the town of Turi, near Bari.

Apologists for the Fascists will point out (correctly) that Mussolini merely had Gramsci imprisoned, whereas someone like Hitler or Stalin would most likely have had him executed. My retort is that caging someone in a rat hole like an animal for the ‘crime’ of espousing unpopular political opinions is a slim improvement over having them shot!

In 1932 an attempt by the Fascist government of Italy to swap political prisoners (Gramsci included) with the Soviet Union went nowhere. His health, which was never good in the first place, declined rapidly in prison. In 1934 he was granted a conditional freedom. On April 27th, 1937 he passed away at the age of 46 at the “Quisisana” Hospital in Rome. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery.

Throughout his adult life Antonio Gramsci was an avowed atheist. Yet some years after his death, Archbishop Luigi de Magistris, the former head of the Apostolic Penitentiary of the Holy See, which deals with confessions, indulgences and the forgiveness of sins, claims that on his deathbed Gramsci “returned to the faith of his infancy.” He further alleged Gramsci took the Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church and even kissed an icon of Jesus Christ. Others, however, point out Italian state documents show no religious official was sent for or received by Gramsci while he was in the hospital. The reader is left to wonder what is the truth.

Benedetto Croce
It is worth noting the three most influential Italian philosophers of the 1930s (Antonio Gramsci, Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile) were all Southerners. Each however, chose a vastly different place on the political spectrum. Gramsci became the consummate Marxist, Croce the aristocratic liberal, while Gentile embraced the Fascism of Benito Mussolini.

Of the three, Croce was the only one who would die in his bed of a ripe old age. Though lionized after the war for his resistance to Mussolini and Fascism, he would live long enough to see both himself and his brand of liberalism become increasingly irrelevant. In a free society the unfettered flow of ideas constantly challenges pre-existing ones, and the post-war era saw Croce’s theories attacked by a new generation of philosophers led by men such as Umberto Eco.

Giovanni Gentile lived long enough to see his philosophy of Actual Idealism go down in flames with the Fascist Italy he had helped to create. His own life ended with an assassin’s bullet. Benito Mussolini, Gentile’s disciple (and lord and master) met a similar, ignoble end. Though Gentile and his philosophy have been largely forgotten, despotism appears to be a natural part of the human condition. It is not difficult to imagine that at some future date, another would-be autocrat will dust off Gentile’s writings to use as a blueprint and justification for his own tyrannical regime. Stranger things have happened.

In spite of the circumstances surrounding Gramsci’s end, his legacy clearly outshines that of Croce’s and Gentile’s. Of the three, his name is best known outside of Italy. He is chiefly remembered as being one of the most original thinkers in the Marxist tradition since Marx himself, and his central influence in shaping Western Marxism is undeniable. I have read a number of his works, and though I admit an antipathy towards Marxist thought in general, I cannot help but perceive the keen intellect of the author in the pages of his works.

One of my favorite works by him is his essay The Southern Question, an analysis and critique of the deplorable conditions of Southern Italy from the founding of the Kingdom of Italy up until his time. His assessment of the problems facing Southern Italy and their causes were spot on! Where I disagree with him was in his proposed solution, for he believed (perhaps naively) that only an alliance of Northern Italian workers with Southern Italian peasants had any hope of uplifting the deplorable conditions our people faced (and still face).

In this he shared the pan-Italian illusion of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. The grim but undeniable reality is that Northerners (bourgeoisie and workers) are the source of many if not most of our problems in the first place! The pseudo-state of Italy was created for their benefit at our expense, and it is administered towards that end to this day! In spite of their outward call for ‘secession’, in actuality the anti-southern prattling of Umberto Bossi and the Lega Nord serves as the propaganda machine for this parasitic monstrosity.* Only a free and independent Repubblica delle Due Sicilie, ruled by us and for us, has any hope of alleviating the poverty and corruption afflicting our people.

Still, Gramsci’s essay The Southern Question should be read by every Southern Italian nationalist, and if you haven’t done so already, I strongly recommend that you do.

If he had only chosen a different path, what a wonderful Southern Italian nationalist Antonio Gramsci would have made!

Gramsci’s legacy remains controversial even in Marxist circles. Palmiro Togliatti, Gramsci’s friend and comrade in the PCI who ran the party after WW2, claimed the gradualist approach of the party was in line with Gramscian thought. Others, though, claim Gramsci was a Left Communist who would have been expelled from the ranks of the PCI if he had not been arrested and imprisoned.

His greatest contribution to Western thought, unquestionably, was in formulating his theory of cultural hegemony. In it, Gramsci proposed that a culturally diverse society (such as Italy) can be ruled or dominated by one of its social classes. As time goes by, the ideas of the ruling social class come to be perceived as the norm by society at large. They are believed to be universal and to benefit everyone, whereas in fact they only benefit the ruling social class.

Ironically, whether Gramsci ever truly realized it, the Risorgimento (which he believed in) was one of those ideas.

Marx believed the recessions and economic contractions inherent in Capitalist societies would ultimately provoke the workers to overthrow the rulers of such societies and restructure existing institutions along Socialist lines, eventually transforming the society into a Communist one. To Marx, a society’s dialectically-changing economy determined and shaped its social and economic classes.

To Lenin, culture was subordinate to political objectives. Gramsci broke with both in stating that cultural hegemony by the proletariat was necessary before state power could be achieved. This hegemony could only be attained by making alliances and compromises with a variety of forces he termed a ‘historic bloc’. Failure to create this union of social forces, Gramsci argued, went a long way in explaining why, by his time, Capitalism was more firmly entrenched than ever before, in spite of Marx’s predictions.

Giambattista Vico
Gramsci’s Theory of Cultural Hegemony profoundly influenced the future of Marxism in Italy, and ultimately the West. Gramscian thought, to a much greater extent than that of Benedetto Croce (who Gramsci studied and critiqued), has permeated the Western political spectrum. Like the venerable Giambattista Vico of Naples (who by the way, influenced Gramsci’s forerunner, Karl Marx), in many cases the people influenced by him probably have no clue as to the source. Example: in the U.S. in the 1990s, right-wing Christian groups sought to win election onto school boards to influence the curricula in public schools. This is cultural hegemony in action!

Another example: at the Republican National Convention in 1992, rightist politician and syndicated columnist Patrick Buchanan spoke of a Culture War in describing the clash in ideologies between U.S. liberals and conservatives. Culture War is a Gramscian term. I wonder if Mr. Buchanan was aware of this fact at the time.

Even more incredibly, there is a movement afoot from people on the far-right side of the political spectrum to make Gramscian thought their own (“Gramcism of the Right”). Antonio Gramsci, the devoted Marxist, would no doubt have a serious problem with that if he was alive today.

Still, one could forcefully argue such intellectual influence is the truest measure of the greatness of a man.

(*) – “In these less than disastrous conditions, we witness day after day the imbalanced conflict between an Italy that aspires to become European with its head held high, creating a modern nation, democratic and civil, and the forces that orbit around the public machinery and are fed by it, the forces whose objectives are to become part of the African peninsula.” – Umberto Bossi

Further reading:
Santucci, Antonio et alii: Antonio Gramsci, Monthly Review Press, 2010.
Gramsci, Antonio: The Southern Question; Transl. and Intro. by Pasquale Verdicchio, Bordighera, Inc. 1995.