The reader can become lost in this selection of political writings from Antonio Gramsci. The writings consist of letters to other Communists, a series of articles, and even party meeting notes. There is a temptation to look ahead toward his final essay in this collection, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question.” But even here his political theories are buried in political strategies. There is no sense of place within a history of ideas. Rather he is a creature of his historical moment. And yet, the historical moment establishes a backdrop which elevate his ideas amidst an inevitable tragedy.
Gramsci was no ordinary politician because he did not live in ordinary times. He was an Italian Communist during the interwar period. The political opposition was led by no ordinary politician, but the charismatic Benito Mussolini. And yet, Gramsci writes as though the opposition was not just Mussolini but the Social Democrats, Socialists and the far left of his own party. There is a recognition of the atomization of political ideas in the writings of Gramsci. Karl Marx had failed to understand the entropy of political coalitions despite his own personal conflicts among the left. There is a false sense of security in the common identity of the proletariat in his political philosophy. Gramsci recognized political organization was enveloped in a natural entropy which brought about conflict. Tension was fundamental to the development of a political movement.
It is remarkable how Gramsci saw himself as a centrist or moderate despite his identification as a Communist. He writes about a “far left” wing of the Communist Party which had held leadership before his more moderate allies took back power of the party organization. But there remains a hesitancy to ally with the larger socialist party. Indeed, there is even greater reluctance to find common cause with the Social Democrats. There is debate over whether the Social Democrats represent a far-right wing of their movement or the far left of their opposition. Gramsci recognized the necessity to build a political coalition but feared the loss of their political identity in a larger movement. Past compromises with the socialists haunt the writings of Gramsci. He admits “we may have made mistakes and we are willing to amend them” but refuses to allow “a compromise with the Socialists on the fundamental issue.” He goes on to refer to the socialists as “untrustworthy elements.”
It is important to place Gramsci within his historical context. He writes about the Fascists, but the term has lost its meaning in today’s political environment. Gramsci does not use Fascist as a pejorative term to vilify his opponents. He writes amidst Mussolini’s rise to power. The failure of the left to unite allowed the Fascists to consolidate power during this period. And yet, Gramsci recognizes it is not enough for the political left to unite. They must win the support of peasants as well as workers to overtake the fascists. A union behind a failed political message simply dilutes the original message of his political party. Past compromises had left too little differentiation from the Socialists, so their political party was unable to grow on its own.
There are parallels to the plight of the Liberal Party in the United Kingdom who formed a coalition government with the Conservatives under David Cameron. Nick Clegg served as a high-profile Deputy Prime Minister but saw the Liberal’s political support collapse in the 2015 parliamentary election. He resigned and left politics afterwards. The team at the British Election Study described the choice of the Liberals to form a coalition with the Conservatives as an “Electoral Shock” because it redefined the understanding of their party by voters. Nonetheless, the party saw a resurgence in membership after its demise in the 2015 election. Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti found a sense of remorse from supporters of the Liberal Party who became engaged thereafter in their study of political parties in the United Kingdom.
Italy remains divided between an industrialized north and a rural south to this day. Regional parties continue to dominate the Italian political scene. The Lega Nord has only recently been transformed into a truly national party under the leadership of Matteo Salvini. Robert Putnam has written about the important differences in political culture between the north and south of Italy. Francis Fukuyama refers to the fundamental lack of trust among southern Italians. The failure of the left to capture the support of the south was a puzzle for the contemporaries of Gramsci because southern Italy is less wealthy than the north. And yet, industrialization gave rise to the mobilization of workers into political parties sympathetic to their needs in the Social Democrats, Socialists, and Communists. Nonetheless, the mobilization of workers did not speak to the needs of southern Italians. Gramsci emphasized the need to brand the Communist Party as a coalition of workers and peasants. But his efforts were not enough to win the votes of Southern Italians.
There are obvious parallels between the experience of the left in Gramsci’s Italy and the Democratic Party of the United States today. The Democrats have struggled to regain the vote of the white working class so they can win the critical states of the Midwest. There is a natural alignment between the white working class and the economic policies of the Democratic Party, and yet the current progressive coalition makes it difficult for the white working class to find a sense of identity in progressive politics. Indeed, the Democrats may win the Midwest through a realignment of the suburbs rather than the working class. Gramsci, however, did not believe there was an alternate path for success in his political climate.
The Southern Question was pivotal for the future of Italian politics. The inability of the left to mobilize Italian peasants meant they gave their support to the Fascists. It is unclear what price Gramsci might have paid to have gained this crucial piece of support. But it was unnecessary because he did not believe the Socialists were capable of capturing support in the south. Any alliance hinged on their ability to seize power back from Mussolini. Any compromise without victory left no differentiation and would likely set the Communist Party back years because their message would lack differentiation from the Socialists.
Stalinism undermined Gramsci’s efforts to unify the proletariat and peasants. Peasants presented a paradox for Communist partisans. Land reform would bring the peasantry into the capitalist system as landowners. Typically, landowners found common cause with the capitalists in their defense of private property rights. This was a challenge in the United States where the appropriation of new land left the Socialists in a perpetual state as a minor political movement. Moreover, the collectivization of farms in Ukraine brought about a sense of distrust among peasants who did not want to collectively own land. They wanted to simply own their own land.
Of course, the peasants had good reason to distrust the politics of leaders like Gramsci. His ideas of hegemony are fundamental to his political theory, but they also demonstrate an insensitivity to the needs of others. His idea of a “revolutionary alliance of the proletariat and the peasants” was not designed to accomplish the interests of the peasants but rather to “accomplish the hegemony of the proletariat.”
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have embraced the concept of hegemony in their political philosophy of radical democracy. Yet the evolution of the left makes the notion of hegemony problematic. Hegemony drowns disparate voices in a dominant political message. Intersectionality challenges the politics of hegemony. Ijeoma Oluo explains how efforts to champion groups like African Americans can become focused on its most dominant group such as African American men. Areas where the interests of African American women diverge from African American men are often neglected. Intersectionality looks to recognize increasingly marginalized groups within marginalized groups. For example, the unique challenges of a disabled African American woman are not necessarily recognized in groups designed to champion African Americans, women or the disabled.
The submersion of the peasants into an alliance of the proletariat was never a realistic possibility. And Gramsci knew this. He recognized “all the problems inherent in the proletariat’s hegemony will certainly present themselves in our country in a more complex and sharp form even than in Russia – because the density of the rural population in Italy is enormously greater; because our peasants have an extremely rich tradition of organization, and have always succeeded in making their specific mass weight felt very keenly in national political life; because the organizational apparatus of the Church has two thousand years of tradition behind it in our country, and has specialized in propaganda and in the organization of the peasants in a way which has no equal in other countries.” The hegemony of the proletariat was necessary to bring about a workers’ state, but this leaves no room for the peasants. The interests of the peasants would become subordinate to workers as demonstrated in the New Economic Policy.
Still, there is a darkness which surrounds the writings of Gramsci. There are moments where his warnings sound like hyperbole until the reader recognizes the Fascists did undermine democratic governance. The Fascists installed Mussolini as a dictator. Gramsci became a political prisoner. Gramsci refers to the Matteotti assassination but never fully explains its significance. Giacomo Matteotti was a socialist politician who spoke out against the overreach of Mussolini. He was assassinated by a group of fascists likely with the support of Mussolini himself. The assassination brought about mass resignations of the opposition parties, but rather than bring about the removal of Mussolini, it allowed for the consolidation of the Fascist regime. There is an urgency in the writings of Gramsci that remains unsatisfied.
The political thought of Gramsci highlights the chaos and contradiction within the actual application of political ideals to action. Compromise becomes a calculated political decision with far reaching consequences. Gramsci wrestled with the challenge of Fascism while he struggled to maintain a firm sense of political identity. Indeed, he looked for an opportunity for his political vision to capture a dominant position within the progressive movement of his time. The inabilities for the left to offer Southern Italians a credible alternative to Fascism had disastrous consequences for world history. And yet, there is no reason to believe Gramsci himself felt any sense of commitment to democracy during this period. Democracy ultimately tests our values. It challenges our sense of political identity and questions the motivations behind our actions.
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