Red Letter
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What Is to Be Done?
by Antonio Gramsci
Estimated Reading Time: 10 min

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was born in Sardinia, an island off the western coast of the Italian mainland. His father was a lower-echelon government employee, and the family had upwardly mobile aspirations despite a downwardly mobile reality. Intellectually alert and thoughtful, Gramsci won a scholarship to the University of Turin in 1911. Within two years he had joined the Italian Socialist Party, within which he became an educator and journalist. In 1919 he helped found a new revolutionary socialist weekly, L'Ordine Nuovo (New Order), which sought to apply the lessons of the Russian Revolution to Italian realities. L'Ordine Nuovo became the voice of a mass factory council movement associated with the general strike and factory occupations of 1920, which—so it seemed to many—"threatened to overturn capitalism and bring the workers to power. The moderate leaders of the trade unions and Socialist Party quickly effected a compromise which ended the occupations and secured (for a short time) the survival of a liberal capitalist regime. In the face of the workers' militancy, the landed aristocracy and factory owners concluded that a right-wing counter-force was needed, and poured money and resources into the rising fascist movement. In the face of the Social-Democratic sell-out, Gramsci and many others on the Left concluded that a new, revolutionary workers' party was needed, resulting in the founding of the Italian Communist Party in 1921.

In the early 1920s, in addition to being an important leader of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci worked for the Communist International in Moscow and Vienna. The rise and succession of victories by the fascist movement headed by ex-Socialist Benito Mussolini was—obviously—of primary concern to Gramsci and his comrades, but they could not agree on what the party's orientation should be.

From Paul Le Blanc's From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics

Dear Friends of the Voce, I have read in Voce, no. 10 (15 September) the interesting discussion between comrade G.P. of Turin and comrade S.V.88 Is the discussion closed? Might one ask that the discussion remain open for many more issues, and invite all young workers of good will to take part in it, expressing their opinions on the subject sincerely and with intellectual honesty?

88. This letter was sent from Moscow in October to the Milan periodical Voce della Gioventu, which had replaced the official organ of the Communist Youth Federation after its suppression by the police.

How The Problem Should Be Posed

I shall start off, and I shall certainly say that, at least in my view, comrade S. V. has not posed the problem properly and has fallen into certain errors that are extremely serious from his own point of view.

Why was the Italian working class defeated? Because it was not united? Because fascism succeeded in defeating the Socialist Party, the traditional party of the toiling population, not only physically but also ideologically? Because the Communist Party did not develop rapidly in the years 1921-2, and did not succeed in grouping around itself the majority of the proletariat and the peasant masses?

Comrade S.V. does not pose these questions. He replies to all the anguished concern expressed in comrade G.P.'s letter with the assertion that the existence of a true revolutionary party would have been enough. and that its future organization will be enough in the future, when the working class has recovered the possibility of movement. But is all that true, or at least in what sense and within what limits is it true?

Comrade S.V. suggests to comrade G.P. that he should not go on thinking in fixed schemas, but should think in other schemas—which he does not specify. But it is in fact essential to specify. So here is what seems immediately necessary to do. Here is what the "beginning" of the Working class's task must be. It is necessary to carry out a pitiless self-criticism of our weakness, and to begin by asking ourselves why we lost, who we were, what we wanted, where we wished to go. But there is also something else which must be done first (one always finds that the beginning always has another ... beginning!): it is necessary to fix the cnteria. the principles. the ideological basis for our very criticism

Does The Working Class Have Its Own Ideology?

In 1919, Italy, a country of about 35 million people, should be characterized neither as industrialized nor as underdeveloped, but as slowly and very unevenly industrializing. Still predominantly agricultural, the Italian peninsula can be divided into three distinct areas with markedly different social structures, each undergoing in very contrasting ways the thin transformations of the rise of industry and of intensive commercialized farming. The North was the most developed of the three areas, with the peninsula's most modern industrial enterprises heavily concentrated in the Milan-Genoa-Turin triangle, while commercial farming was centered in the fertile valley of the Po River. It is important to note, however, that even the North was still in a state of transition and that in the northern countryside more traditional systems of land tenure and cultivation still existed alongside some of the most mechanized farms in Europe. The other two areas of Italy—Center and South—were alike in being traditional societies less affected by modernization, though the Center of the peninsula and the South were very different social systems. (Frank M. Snowden; On the Social Origins of Agrarian Fascism in Italy) 89. Giuffrida Giuseppe De Felice, Aurelio Drago and Alessande Tasca di Cuto were Sicilian reformist politicians, before the War oriented towards Giolitti's policy of alliance with the organized labour movement, during the War allies of Salandra in his pro-War policies. De Felice had been leader of the Fasci movement of 1893-4: he became a syndicalist, and rallied to a nationalist perspective during the Libyan War.

90. In 1898 the Milan workers demonstrated against rising prices and food shortages, and were bloodily repressed by General Bava Beccaris.

91.The national general strike of September 1904, sparked off by massacres of mine-workers in Sardinia and peasants in Sicily, was launched by the revolutionary syndicalist leaders of the Milan Chamber of Labour and lasted four days. This was the high point of revolutionary syndicalist influence in the PSI and the unions; but the collapse of the strike—Giolitti, the prime minister, simply waited it out, then called parliamentary elections—weakened the entire trade-union movement, and presaged a revival of reformism and decline of syndicalism. Many of the latter's leaders were to be absorbed by the ruling class in the process described by Gramsci as "transformism."

92. After the Risorgimento. the republican tradition stemming from Mazzini was of diminishing importance, caught as it was between the emerging socialist movement and the parliamentary "radicals" who had come to terms with the monarchy. However, in 1905 a Republican Party was organized with some success, and in Romagna even won a mass base, coming to dominate the share-croppers unions and an important section of the agricultural laborers. The opposition of the majority of the party to the Libyan War led to a split, but by contrast it was among the first forces to come out for Italian intervention in World War One. After the War, the Republican Party supported the Alleanza del Lavoro and later participated in the Aventine opposition to fascism. Never a large party, at the extreme left of the bourgeois spectrum, it won 29 seats in the 1900 elections, 24 in 1904 and again in 1909, 17 in 1913, and together with "democratic" allies 43 seats in 1919, 22 in 1921 and 9 in 1924.

Why have the Italian proletarian parties always been weak from a revolutionary point of view? Why have they failed, when they should have passed from words to action? They did not know the situation in which they had to operate, they did not know the terrain on which they should have given battle. Just think: in more than thirty years of life, the Socialist Party has not produced a single book which studies the socioeconomic structure of Italy. There does not exist a single book which studies the Italian political parties, their class links, their significance. Why did reformism sink such deep roots in the Po valley? Why is the Catholic Popular Party more successful in northern and central than in southern Italy, where the population after all is more backward and should therefore more easily follow a confessional party? Why are the big landowners in Sicily separatists but not the peasants, whereas in Sardinia the peasants are separatists and not the big landowners? Why did the reformism of De Felice, Drago, Tasca di Cuto and their ilk develop in Sicily and not elsewhere?89 Why was there an armed struggle betwccn fascists and nationalists in southern Italy which did not occur elsewhere?

We do not know Italy. Worse still: we lack the proper instruments for knowing Italy as it really is. It is therefore almost impossible for us to make predictions, to orient ourselves, to establish lines of action which have some likelihood of being accurate. There exists no history of the Italian working class. There exists no history of the peasant class. What was the importance of the 1898 events in Milan?90 What lesson did they furnish? What was the importance of the 1904 strike in Milan?91 How many workers know that then, for the first time, the necessity of the proletarian dictatorship was explicitly asserted? What significance has syndicalism had in Italy? Why has it been successful among agricultural workers and not among the industrial workers? What is the importance of the Republican party?92 Why are there republicans wherever there are anarchists? What is the importance and the meaning of the phenomenon of syndicalist elements going over to nationalism before the Libyan War. and the repetition of the phenomenon on a larger scale with fascism?

It is enough to pose these questions to perceive that we are completely ignorant, that we are without orientation. It seems that no one in Italy has ever thought, ever studied, ever done any research. It seems that the Italian working class has never had its own conception of the life, the history, the development of human society. And yet the working class does have its own conception: historical materialism. And yet the working class has had great teachers (Marx, Engels) who have shown how to examine facts and situations, and how to draw from one's examination guides to action.

This is our weakness, this is the main reason for the defeat of the Italian revolutionary parties: not to have had an ideology; not to have disseminated it among the masses; not to have strengthened the consciousness of their militants with certitudes of a moral and psychological character. What wonder that some workers have become fascists? What wonder if S.V. himself says at one point: "who knows, even we, if we were convinced, might become fascists"? (Such statements should not be made even as jokes, even as hypotheses for the sake of argument.) What wonder, if another article in the same issue of Voce says: " We are not anti-clerical"? Are we not anti-clerical? What does that mean? That we are not anti-clerical in a masonic sense, from the rationalist point of view of the bourgeois? It is necessary to say this. but it is also necessary to say that we, the working class, are indeed anti-clerical, inasmuch as we are materialists; that we have a conception of the world which transcends all religions and all philosophies born hitherto on the terrain of class-divided society. Unfortunately ... we do not have that conception, and this is the reason for all these theoretical errors, which also have their reflection in practice and have so far led us to defeat and to fascist oppression.

The Beginning ... of the Beginning!

What is to be done then? Where to begin? Well: in my view it is necessary to begin precisely from this. From a study of the doctrine which belongs to the working class, which is the philosophy of the working class, which is the sociology of the working class: from a study of historical materialism, from a study of Marxism. Here is an immediate task for the groups of friends of the Voce: to meet, buy books, organize lessons and discussions on this subject, form solid criteria for research and study, and criticize the past—in order to be stronger in the future and win.

The Voce should, in every possible way, help this attempt—by publishing courses of lessons and discussions. by giving rational bibliographical information, by replying to readers' questions, by stimulating their good will. The less that has been done up till now, the more it is necessary to do, and with the greatest possible rapidity. Destiny is pressing in upon us: the Italian petty bourgeoisie, which had placed its hopes and its faith in fascism, is daily seeing its house of cards collapse. Fascist ideology has lost its capacity to expand, and indeed is losing ground. The first dawn of the new proletarian day is appearing anew.

Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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