Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
by Antonio Gramsci
Estimated Reading Time: 8 min

Okay, it's time for Gramsci. We're going to see if we can pull off a series of readings that go from the Factory Councils, the intellectuals, the party, hegemony, and through to the historic bloc. The parallels to today can be jarring, the analysis is impressive, some of the later writing confusing. Gramsci was sent to prison and his prosecutor famously said "For twenty years, we must stop this brain from functioning." Here we will explore why Gramsci's mind was so threatening to the ruling class.

But first, a brief aside: Gramsci's later writing is confusing, not because he couldn't write clearly, but because he was trying to avoid the dangerous gaze of the prison censors. This piece concludes with one of Gramsci's most famous quotes about optimism and pessimism. Enjoy.

The Confederation’s Livorno Congress is finished. No new slogan, no line has come out of this congress. In vain have the broad masses of the Italian people waited for an orientation. In vain have they awaited a slogan that would enlighten them, that would succeed in calming their anguish and giving a form to their passion. The congress has not confronted or resolved a single one of the problems which are vital for the proletariat in the present historical period: neither the problem of emigration, nor the problem of unemployment, nor the problem of relations between workers and peasants, nor the problem of the institutions which can best contain the development of the class struggle, nor the problem of the material defence of working-class buildings and the personal safety of working-class militants. The sole concern of the majority at the congress was how to safeguard and guarantee the position and the power (powerless power) of the Socialist Party.

Our struggle against trade-union officialdom could not have been better justified. In many regions of Italy the workers had entered the field en masse to defend their elementary right to life, freedom of movement on the streets, freedom of association, freedom to hold meetings and to have their own premises for the purpose. The field of struggle swiftly became a tragic one: fire and flame, cannonades, machine-gun fire, many dozens killed. The majority of the congress was not moved by these events. The tragedy of the popular masses defending themselves desperately from cruel, implacable enemies was not able to render serious this majority made up of men with withered hearts and shrivelled brains, or inspire it with a sense of its own historical responsibilities. These men no longer live for the class struggle, no longer feel the same passions, the same desires, the same hopes as the masses. Between them and the masses an unbridgeable abyss has opened up. The only contact between them and the masses is the account-ledger and the membership file. These men no longer see the enemy in the bourgeoisie, they see him in the communists. They are afraid of competition; instead of leaders they have become bankers of bmen in a monopoly situation, and the least hint of competition makes them crazy with terror and despair.

The Confederal Congress at Livorno was an awesome experience for us; our pessimism was outstripped by this experience. We of L'Ordine Nuovo have always seen the trade-union problem, the problem of organizing the broad masses and selecting the leading personnel for their organization, as the central problem of the modern revolutionary movement. But never as today have we felt the full gravity and extent of the problem; never, as today, have we felt the full scale ofthe gangrene which is eating away at the movement. At the congress, the articles of L'Ordine Nuovo were read, annotated, commented on, they filled the hall with clamour and tumult. Yet these articles did not convey even the tenth part of our pessimistic judgement on the inadequacy of those men and institutions.

Moreover, this judgement has become still harsher since the congress. Yes, because while the workers were fighting in the streets and squares, while fire and flame were striking terror into the hearts of the people and driving them in despair to individual acts of fury and the most terrible reprisals, we could never have imagined that the so-called delegates of these popular masses would lose themselves in the swampy and miasmatic marshland of private feuds. The masses were spilling their blood in the streets and squares, cannon and machine-guns were appearing on the scene; and these leaders, these men at the top, these future administrators of society, raged and foamed because of a newspaper article, a caricature, a headline.

And they would like to convince us, these people, that we have done wrong; that we have committed a crime in separating ourselves from them. They would like to convince us that it is we who are light-minded, that it is we who are irresponsible, that it is we who seek “miracles”, that it is we who are not capable of understanding and weighing the difficulties of historical situations and revolutionary movements. They would like us to become convinced that in them are realized the wisdom, the competence, the skill, the good sense, the political and administrative capability accumulated by the proletariat in the course of its struggles and historical experiences as a class. Come, away with them! The Confederal Congress rehabilitates Parliament, rehabilitates the worst assemblies of the classes which in the past have shown themselves most corrupt and putrefied.

11. This motto of Romain Rolland’s appeared on the front page of every issue of the weekly Ordine Nuovo, until its conversion on January 1, 1921 into a “communist daily”.

Our pessimism has increased, our will has not diminished. The officials do not represent the base. The absolutist States were precisely officials’ Stales, States of the bureaucracy. They did not represent the popular masses and were replaced by parliamentary States. The Confederation represents, in the historical development of the proletariat, what the absolute State represented in the historical development of the bourgeois classes. It will be replaced by the organization of the Councils, which are the working-class parliaments, which have the function of eating away bureaucratic sediments and transforming old organizational relations. Our pessimism has increased, but our motto is still alive and to the point: pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will11.

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