To give a proper overview of Gramsci’s life it is essential to give a brief outline of the new Italian nation. Until 1861, the country was made up of different provinces ruled by different traditional monarchs and foreign powers. Even though small parts of Italy developed modern industrial infrastructures, the majority consisted of large estates on which poor peasants lived. This was the situation of many nineteenth century European and South American countries. This led to activists for national self-determination. However it is important to note that this did not bring about a revolution uprising of the Italian people, instead came self-rule, through a series of wars for unification known as the Risorgimento. Once Italy had organized parliamentary democracy, the right wing Moderates and the left wing Action Party had very similar policies, both aiming for the country’s industrial modernization, political reformation and also imperial growth. During the Trasformismo period Italy became governed by different Left-Right coalitions and the ‘transforming’ of the political party conflicts of the Risorgimento became a centrist agreement.
Gramsci saw the Risorgimento and its result as the core example of how governing power captivate its political opposers and establishes reformation, without including all participants in its political program. He believed that the Moderate Party was successful because it represented a particular class. The individuals who built up its leadership were selected from a class made up of estate owners and northern industrialists who saw their , in Gramsci words, ‘condensed’ interests. Contrastingly, the Action Party was not linked to any specific class, thus could not make a ‘condensed’ program. The policies of the latter party often featured inconsistency, example around hostility towards the church, which failed to serve the peasants who they supposedly represented. Gramsci explains that in such situation the Action Party seemed to have taken the position of a subaltern to the Moderates, identifying with the goals of the Moderates and adopting their values. In fact, this made Gramsci observe that the whole Italian state history ranging from 1848 to the 1920s can be seen as one of ‘trasformismo’, primarily there was a small form of transformism as individuals moved towards conservative camp, followed by the transformism of large groups, as the radical leftists firstly promoted imperialism and then advocates of Italy’s participation in the First World War. Even though these events seemed to catch the interest of many throughout the nation, they were actually irrelevant to the interests of the working labour class.
Both the Risorgimento and the trasformismo period impacted on Gramsci’s life. Antonio Gramsci was born on the 22nd January 1891, in Sardinia, where his father, Francesco, worked. Even though before the unification the Sardinian island formed part of the northern realm, it was seen more as part of Southern Italy, with its poor economy that was ruined by troubled events concerned with banking and exportation. At first, Gramsci’s family, being middle class, were not affected by this poverty, however this changed with the 1897 elections when Francesco positioned himself in favor of a particular unsuccessful parliament candidate. Vendettas where popular in Sardinian, especially when dealing with politics, and Francesco was an easy target. He was suspended from work and sent to prison for administrative irregularity. Without any form of income, the Gramsci family was driven to a desperate situation and Antonio, despite being still of young age was forced to interrupt his studies to go to work in the Land office of Ghilarza. Unfortunately the latter was not the only hardship Antonio had to face. When he was three years old he had a spinal problem, making him physically deformed. Also his weak health condition and acute illness would follow him for the rest of his life. His weakness, deformity and sudden reduced classes, made him a prey to the village harsh life, making Gramsci’s personality withdraw.
Once his father was released from imprisonment, improving slightly te financial condition of the family, Gramsci was sent back to school. In 1908, Gramsci moved with his brother Gennaro to Cagliari, where he started to attend the liceo. Luck turned around when despite his difficult financial situation, Gramsci managed to win a scholarship for the University of Turin, where he studied modern philosophy. These events all took place against contemporary developments in Sardinia, all of which influenced Gramsci’s thoughts and politics. A sudden financial fall in agriculture brought about industrial development in the form of mines. The miners lived and worked in very dispregative conditions, making them rebel to such situation and go on strike at Bugerru. Things escalated and three workers were shot dead. These killings provoked a general strike in all Italy and also developed the political consciousness amongst the citizens. The latter was not only related to the case in Bugerru, but it was a response to the treatment of the southern areas (Mezzogiorno) by the then present government, which through the working class movement, tended to impoverish the rural South while giving concessions to the northern industry. This generated a sense of hatred between the Northern Italy and Southern Italy, and between classes. All this led to a mass brawl in Cagliari in 1906 which brought about the arrest of hundreds, and soldiery firing on the defenseless crowds. Consequently to this violent event, a protest was set up in Cagliari whilst Gramsci lived there. At the time Gennaro was the secretary of the district Socialist Party, and Gramsci was approached by Raffa Garzia, a teacher, who asked him to write articles for Sardist, the Sardinian nationalist newspaper. Gramsci was also particularly influenced by Gaetano Salvemini, a radical socialist who was against the exploitation of Southern Italy by the North, and as such demanded that the south peasants should be given the right to vote.
In 1911 Gramsci went to Turin and there his student years were controlled by continuous fights against his physical limitations and poor financial status. Unfortunately he had to abandon his studies in April 1915 because of nervous and physical breakdowns. However, during the period between 1911 to 1915 Gramsci’s intellect evolved, he came to support socialism and put aside his Sardism. However he did not reject the understanding that the South was effectively being exploited by the North. When Gramsci arrived in Turin, Italy and also Europe, were going through an influence of anti-positivism, that is a comeback against the thought that both social life and natural science could be studied using ‘objective’ laws. Even though the line of thought of positivism took various forms, they all shared a reformist political view. This brought about developments in the education and health sector while it also advanced the understanding that different Italian societies and regions had reached different levels of development thus having different cultural forms. Gramsci believed that this was derived by a positivist predisposition to merge together the wealthy economic sectors of society being; the wealthy industrial working class, the south landowners and the middle class, as the representatives of a modernized and ever evolving Italy. The later Gramsci saw that the Socialist Party had a say in this ideology, building up a North alliance that could outcast the underdeveloped South. Thus it is clear when Gramsci rejected Sardinia he was not denying the Southern matter. Instead he criticized the sociologists of positivism who aimed for the intellectual development of ‘both cultures’. He claimed that this dividing strategy simple maintained the power of the bourgeoisie and prevented the development of the other classes, and thus of Italy as a whole.
Whilst Gramsci’s stay in Turin, military activity and Italy’s liability towards its participation in First World War were increasing. Italy did not have an empire which went overseas since it was unificated at a late stage, thus it tried to insert itself within the North African border by taking hold of various Libyan ports. The latter military action was a success, yet this event gave rise to different opinions and also divided the leftist party. The division intensified and this was evident when Italy had to forcefully choose whether to participate in the First World War. On one hand, the Right party approved of intervention as this would mean acquiring territory from Austria, and on the other, the Leftists split up between neutralists and interventionists, one of which was the editor of the party’s official newspaper, Benito Mussolini.
Those who were in favor of Italy entering the War prevailed and Italy was in was on the British, Russian and French side, yet in 1917 they experienced a defeat against the Germans at Caporetto. Even though the Italians expanded their territory by the end of the First World War, these were not enough to cover the critical economic and political situation war brought about. After the war inflation and unemployment increased resulting in an increase in radicalism, while peasants, previous soldiers and workers all looked towards leadership in the form of political organizations. This need was initially suppressed by the Catholic and socialist groups, but in 1919 a new political party came into force giving a voice to the nationalists and the lower middle class. This was the birth of Mussolini’s Fascist Party which succeeded to spread to and take control of central and northern Italy from its base in Milan by the year 1921.
At this point it is important to see in context the growth of the working class movement and the birth of Fascism with the events occurring outside Italy, which affected the Italian socio-political aspects. The after effects of war were felt in other countries especially in Russia, which military and economic sectors were in total crisis. Mass strikes occurred in Russia, in particular in February 1917 at St. Petersburg, when a soviets committee and soldiers took over the city. The new government was reformist, but a second revolution in 1917 made Lenin in control of the National Assembly and the army. The following year the Assembly was dissolved and the world’s first workers’ state was established, that is the Soviet Socialist Republic. This was a very important achievement for the revolutionary socialism and encouraged socialist revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Austria, although none of them succeeded.
In 1915 Gramsci health got better and after being excused from the military service he dedicated his time to politics and writing. In April 1917 he wrote an article for the ‘Il Grido del Popolo’ about the Russian Revolution, in which he explicitly states that the popular press was influencing the public to believe that the revolution was a bourgeois one, whilst he believed it to be otherwise. He contrastingly believed that the Russian Revolution was induced by the proletarians and will consequently result in a socialist government. Gramsci firmly believed that the Bolshevik Revolution was against Marx’s ‘Capital’, which assumed that a workers’ revolution could only occur after a bourgeois, capitalist society has been set up. The successful Russian Revolution encouraged the Italian workers to attempt their own revolt, but the fact that they lacked leadership made it a failure.
Later on Gramsci went on a new journey, that of creating the journal ‘L’Ordine Nuovo’. Its main aim was that to explore the Italian working class with regards to their ‘Soviet’ characteristics and also to examine the revolutionary link in a historical manner. Gramsci saw that in Turin many factory councils emerged and were models of the ‘Soviet’ organization, this is especially the case of the Fiat factories, which dominated Turin’s industrial sector. These factory council’s organizations were not mere trade unions since they put their utmost to stop the capitalists’ control on production and they also created a foot hold for the government. Gramsci believed that these elected councils, being farm councils, district councils and the factory councils would take over and replace the bourgeois government, forming the pediments of a global system.
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