It’s a romantic tale: a young communist struggling against an authoritarian regime is arrested on a treason charge. A dramatic trial follows, and he is consigned to a long sentence, separated from his wife and family. In prison, he rallies his comrades, organizing education sessions. It could be the story of Nelson Mandela, except that this would-be revolutionary came from a poor family, not aristocratic stock. And while Mandela’s tragedy had a redemptive ending, that of Antonio Gramsci ended in tragedy.
Antonio Gramsci, born in Ales, Sardinia on 22 January 1981, was the son of a minor civil servant, of Albanian descent. As a child, he was frail, and he grew up stunted and hunchbacked. The family attributed his disability to him being dropped by a servant. But it seems rather to have been the result of Pott’s disease (tuberculosis of the bones).
Gramsci’s hard childhood became harder when his father was imprisoned for alleged administrative irregularities. “Nino” had to leave school at the age of 12 and work in the local tax office, continuing his studies in the evenings. Later, he was able to finish the final three years of secondary school, and he then went to sixth form in Cagliarii, where he lodged with his brother Gennaro. Around this time, he began to read socialist magazines and meet other young people for political discussions. Aged 19, he published his first political article in a Sardinian daily. The following year, he won a scholarship to the University of Turin, where he enrolled as a student of Letters. He was lonely, broke and exhausted, but he made friends with Angelo Tasca and Palmiro Togliatti, two other future leaders of the Italian left.
Despite his ill-health, he continued with his studies, but by 1916, he was as devoted to journalism as to research. Turin was a hot-bed of trades unionism and socialism: he wrote theatre reviews, articles critical of the war and of nationalism. His intellectual and political life would always be as much about culture as about revolution.
The Russian revolution filled Gramsci and other socialists with hope and excitement, although a popular uprising in Turin in 1917 was easily crushed, and all the revolutionary leaders were arrested. Gramsci was now secretary of the Turin section of the Italian Socialist Party. The following two years, the Biennio Rosso, were a time of revolutionary fervor in northern Italy, and Gramsci was at the forefront. He was one of the founders of L’Ordine Nuovo, a socialist review, which operated under the slogan: “Educate yourselves because we'll need all your intelligence. Stir yourselves because we'll need all your enthusiasm. Organize yourselves because we'll need all your strength.” In 1919, Gramsci was briefly arrested. The factory council movement – echoing the Russian Soviets – spread through Turin and other northern industrial cities. In April 1920 a general strike was observed in Turin, but not in the rest of the country. In 1921, Gramsci was one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party. The following year, in poor health, he travelled to Moscow as a delegate to the Communist International.
Shortly after arrival, illhealth forced Gramsci to spend time in the Serebranyi Bor Sanatorium, where he met his future wife, Julia Schucht, a Russian violinist.
Back in Italy, Mussolini’s Fascists came into power that autumn. L’Ordine Nuovo was shut down and communists and socialists in Turin were violently assaulted. Executive committee members of the PCI were arrested, and a warrant was issued for Gramsci.
In April 1924, Gramsci was elected to the Italian Parliament. Trusting to his immunity as a deputy, Gramsci returned to Italy after a two year absence. Gramsci spoke about the need for unity of the left, in the face of the Fascist threat. Matteotti, a Socialist deputy who had denounced Mussolini in the parliament, was murdered by Fascist thugs. By now, the Communist Party was organizing clandestinely through cells and its leaders were meeting in secret. In 1925, Gramsci made his only parliamentary speech, criticizing the banning of opposition groups.
In 1926, Julia, who was expecting their second child (Giuliano) returned to Moscow. Unlike other Communist leaders, Gramsci remained in Italy. He wrote a letter to the Russian Communist Party to criticize the split between Stalin and Trotsky, saying “today you risk destroying your own handiwork”, but in Moscow Togliatti suppressed the letter.
On 8 November Gramsci was arrested by the Fascists, as part of a crack down after an assassination attempt against Mussolini. He was charged under a new law on public security and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He was sent to the Italian island of Ustica with other political prisoners. Here he started classes for the other inmates. His friend Pierro Sraffa, an economist, opened an account at a Milan bookshop so that Gramsci could be supplied with the books he needed to continue his work in prison.
In 1927, Gramsci was moved back to the mainland, eventually ending up in Milan. Subject to illness and insomnia, he was interrogated many times. His sister in law Tatiana Schucht moved to Milan in order to be able to help him.
In May 1928, Gramsci and 21 other PCI leaders faced a show trial. Chillingly, the Prosecutor declared of Gramsci: “We must prevent this brain from functioning for 20 years.” He received one of the heaviest sentences of 20 years, 4 months and 5 days. First, he was sent to prison in Turi, near Bari, where he was imprisoned in crowded conditions. He was now suffering from a uremic disorder which left him unable to walk.
In January 1929, he was given permission to write in his cell, and on 8 February he began the first of his famous Prison Notebooks. He would write notes on politics, culture and history. Here, he developed his famous notion of hegemony. By this he referred to the way that a regime governed not just be coercion, but also by winning consent. He was one of the first to understand the role of the battle of ideas, and the need to create what he called a “counter hegemony”, based on cultural struggle. He also developed his notion of “organic intellectuals”, by which he meant people from the working class, as opposed to traditional intellectuals of academia. These ideas make him one of the few Marxist writers who still influences contemporary thinking, decades after the fall of communism.
As well as Gramsci’s theoretical writings, he also wrote letters to his family and his friends, sometimes scolding, sometimes passionate, often touching, as when he shared memories of his Sardinian childhood with his two sons, the younger of whom he would never meet.
Over the years, successive appeals reduced Gramsci’s sentence and improved his access to books and newspapers. But his suffering continued as his health deteriorated. When his mother died in 1932, the news was withheld from him because his family did not want to further undermine his well-being. Tatiana continued to visit Gramsci and provide him with assistance. Meanwhile his wife, her sister, was unwell in Moscow. In 1933, Gramsci was moved to the prison hospital of Formia. In 1935, as his health continued to deteriorate, he was moved to the Quisisana clinic in Rome.
In 1937, Gramsci’s reduced sentence expired on 21 April. His plan had been to return to Sardinia when his health improved. But on the evening of 25 April, he suffered a stroke. Two days later, he died, with Tatiana at his bedside. He was buried in Rome, after a funeral which was attended by a few friends and many more secret policemen.
Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks had been smuggled out of his prison cell and taken out of Italy for safe keeping. Later, his writings would be strongly influential in the development of western Marxism and the postwar political strategy of Eurocommunism which repudiated violent revolution in favour of democratic struggle and cultural action.
Gramsci is by no means the only disabled revolutionary in history. The French revolution had Jean-Paul Marat with his skin diseases and Georges Couthon with his paraplegia. Another Marxist, Che Guevara, had severe asthma. But I find Gramsci especially admirable, not just because of his heroism in the face of repression and illhealth, but also because of his humanity. He was no Leninist centralist trying to seize power, but a libertarian socialist committed to popular consent. He was not a tiresome political obsessive, but someone with wide ranging interests in folklore and literature. I’ve still got my own black notebook from 1991, where I’ve written down quotations from his letters show how he is one of the most poetic of revolutionaries:
“The cycle of the seasons, the progression of the solstices and the equinoxes, I feel them as if they were flesh of my flesh; the rose is living and will certainly flower, because the heat leads in the cold, and under the snow the first violets are already trembling. In short, time has seemed to me a thing of flesh, ever since space ceased to exist for me.” (To Tatiana, July 1 1929)
“When a man has no chance of making plans for the future, he continually chews over the past, analyzing it. Gradually he gets to understand it better in all its aspects. He thinks especially of all the stupidities he has committed, of hios own acts of weakness, of everything it would have een better to do or leave undone or the things he was in duty bound to do or leave undone.” (To Guilia, February 9 1931)
Gramsci had a fondness for quotations, which I share. His own favourite saying was “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, a thought which has always inspired me. In that notebook I also wrote down a quotation which expresses Gramsci’s unblinking realism: “Turn your face violently towards things as they exist now”. Although I was once a student communist, I no longer share Gramsci’s Marxist analysis. This does not stop me admiring his courage or his intellectual achievements.
Radio 4 Great Lives
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