The New American
Father James Thorton
July 5, 2009
One of the most interesting aspects of the study of history is that very often men born in the most humble of circumstances nevertheless rise up to affect the course of human history dramatically. They may be men of action or men of thought, yet in either case their activities can father tremendous changes across the years. Antonio Gramsci was both a man of action and thought and, whatever the outcome of the events of the next several decades, he will almost certainly be reckoned by future historians to have been a remarkable figure.
Born in obscurity on the island of Sardinia in 1891, Gramsci would not have been considered a prime candidate to impact significantly the 20th century. Gramsci studied philosophy and history at the University of Turin, and soon became a dedicated Marxist, joining the Italian Socialist Party. Immediately after the First World War, he established his own radical newspaper, The New Order , and shortly afterwards helped in the founding of the Italian Communist Party.
The fascist " March on Rome ," and the appointment of Benito Mussolini to the prime ministry, impelled the young Marxist theorist to depart Italy. Casting about for a new home, he chose the most logical place for a Communist, Lenin's newly fashioned USSR. However, Soviet Russia was not what he had expected. His powers of observation wakened immediately to the distance that so often separates theory from reality. A fanatical Marxist insofar as political, economic, and historical theories were concerned, Gramsci was profoundly disturbed that life in Communist Russia exhibited little evidence of any deeply felt love on the part of the workers for the "paradise" that Lenin had constructed for them. Even less was there any deep attachment to such concepts as the " Proletarian revolution " or " Dictatorship of the proletariat ," apart from the obligatory rhetoric.
On the contrary, it was obvious to Gramsci that the "paradise" of the working class maintained its hold over workers and peasants only by sheer terror, by mass murder on a gargantuan scale, and by the ubiquitous, gnawing fear of midnight knocks on the door and of forced-labor camps in the Siberian wilderness. Also crucial to Lenin's state was a continuous drumbeat of propaganda, slogans, and outright lies. It was all very disillusioning for Gramsci. While other men might have reassessed their entire ideological outlook after such experiences, Gramsci's subtle, analytical mind worked on the seeming paradox differently.
The death of Lenin and the seizure of power by Stalin caused Gramsci immediately to reconsider his choice of residence. Building upon Lenin's achievements in terror and tyranny, Stalin began to transform agrarian Russia into an industrial giant that would then turn all of its energies to military conquest. It was Stalin's design to build the greatest military machine in history, crush the "forces of reaction," and impose Communism on Europe and Asia — and later on the whole world — by brute force.
In the meantime, however, to consolidate and assure his power, Stalin systematically commenced the extermination of potential foes within his own camp. That, as it turned out, became an ongoing process, one that lasted until his own demise. In particular, men suspected of even the slightest ideological heresy in relation to Stalin's own interpretation of Marxism-Leninism were sent straight to torture chambers or death camps, or were hurried before firing squads.
His days obviously numbered in Stalinist Russia, Gramsci decided to return home and take up the struggle against Mussolini. Seen as both a serious threat to the safety of the fascist regime and a likely agent of a hostile foreign power, after a relatively short time Gramsci was arrested and sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment, and there, in his prison cell, he devoted the nine years that were left to him to writing. Before his death from tuberculosis in 1937, Gramsci produced nine volumes of observations on history, sociology, Marxist theory, and, most importantly, Marxist strategy. Those volumes, known as the Prison Notebooks , have since been published in many languages and distributed throughout the world. Their significance comes from the fact that they form the foundation for a dramatic new Marxist strategy, one that makes the "spontaneous revolution" of Lenin as obsolete as hoop skirts and high button shoes, one that promises to win the world voluntarily to Marxism, and one based on a realistic appraisal of historical fact and human psychology, rather than on empty wishes and illusions.
As we shall see, Gramsci's shrewd assessment of the true essence of Marxism and of mankind makes his writings among the most powerful in this century. While Gramsci himself would die an ignominious and lonely death in a fascist prison, his thoughts would attain a life of their own and rise up to menace the world. What are these ideas?
Essence of the Red Revolution
Gramsci's signal contribution was to liberate the Marxist project from the prison of economic dogma, thereby dramatically enhancing its ability to subvert Christian society.
If we were to take the ideological pronouncements of Marx and Lenin at face value, we would believe — as have millions of their deluded disciples — that the uprising of the workers was inevitable, and that all that was to be done was to mobilize the underclass through propaganda, thereby sparking universal revolution. Of course, this premise is invalid, yet it remained inflexible doctrine among Communists — at least, for public consumption.
However, the hard core of the Communist movement consisted of ruthless criminals, clear-eyed in their understanding of the intellectual errors of Marxism, who were willing to employ any necessary means to obtain the power they sought. For such hardened, hate-intoxicated conspirators, ideology is a tactic, a means of mobilizing supporters and rationalizing criminal actions.
Those who accept uncritically the idea that "Communism is dead" fail to understand the true nature of the enemy. Communism is not an ideology in which one believes. Rather, it is a criminal conspiracy in which one enlists. Although Lenin professed to revere Marx's scribblings as sacred writ, once his Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia, Lenin freely modified Marxism to suit his needs. The same was true of Stalin. The Bolsheviks did not come to power in Russia by any uprising of the workers and peasants, but by a coup d'etat, orchestrated by a tightly disciplined Marxist cadre and ultimately consolidated by civil war. They also received — lest it be forgotten — critical help from Western political and banking elites.
In similar fashion, Communism did not come to power in Eastern Europe by revolution, but rather through the imposition of that system by a conquering Red Army — and, once again, through the corrupt connivance of conspirators in the West. In China, Communism came to power through civil war, aided by the Soviets and by traitorous elements in the West.
In no single instance has Communism ever achieved power by means of any popular revolutionary upheaval, but always by force or subterfuge. The only popular revolutionary upheavals recorded in the 20th century have been anti-Marxist "counter-revolutions," such as the revolt in Berlin in 1954 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
Looking back on the 20th century, it is clear that Marx was wrong in his assumption that most workers and peasants were dissatisfied with their places in, and alienated from, their societies, that they were seething with resentment against the middle and upper classes, or that they in any way were predisposed to revolution. Moreover, wherever Communism achieved power, its use of unprecedented levels of violence, coercion, and repression have generated underground opposition at home and militant opposition abroad, making endless killing and repression endemic to Marxism and essential for Communist survival. All of these undeniable facts, when examined honestly, posed insurmountable difficulties insofar as further extensions of Communist power were concerned, and assured some kind of ultimate crisis for Marxism.
While the foregoing is obvious to perceptive observers now, looking back from the vantage point of our time and after more than eight decades of experience with the reality of Communism in power, we begin to understand something of the insightfulness of Antonio Gramsci when we realize that what is evident now, at the close of the millennium, was evident to him when the Soviet regime was in its infancy and Communism still largely untried conjecture.
Gramsci was a brilliant student of philosophy, history, and languages. This education imparted to him an excellent grasp of the character of his fellow men and of the character of the societies that made up the civilized community of nations in the early decades of this century. As we have already seen, one of the foundational insights given him by this education was that Communist hopes for a spontaneous revolution, brought about by some process of historical inevitability, were illusory. Marxist ideologues were, he asserted, beguiling themselves. In the Gramscian view workers and peasants were not, by and large, revolutionary-minded and they harbored no desire for the destruction of the existing order. Most had loyalties beyond, and far more powerful than, class considerations, even in those instances where their lives were less than ideal. More meaningful to ordinary people than class solidarity and class warfare were such things as faith in God and love of family and country. These were foremost among their overriding allegiances.
Such attractiveness as Communist promises might possess among the working classes was, moreover, diminished by Communist brutalities and by heavy-handed totalitarian methods. Stirring the aristocratic and bourgeois classes to action, these negative attributes were so terrifying and sobering that militant anti-Marxist organizations and movements sprang up everywhere, effectively putting a halt to plans for Communist expansion. With all of this easily apparent to him, and, blessed in a way with the seemingly endless leisure afforded by prison life, Gramsci turned his excellent mind to saving Marxism by analyzing and solving these questions.
Subverting Christian Faith
The civilized world, Gramsci deduced, had been thoroughly saturated with Christianity for 2,000 years and Christianity remains the dominant philosophical and moral system in Europe and North America. Practically speaking, civilization and Christianity were inextricably bound together. Christianity had become so thoroughly integrated into the daily lives of nearly everyone, including non-Christians living in Christian lands, it was so pervasive, that it formed an almost impenetrable barrier to the new, revolutionary civilization Marxists wish to create. Attempting to batter down that barrier proved unproductive, since it only generated powerful counter-revolutionary forces, consolidating them and making them potentially deadly. Therefore, in place of the frontal attack, how much more advantageous and less hazardous it would be to attack the enemy's society subtly, with the aim of transforming the society's collective mind gradually, over a period of a few generations, from its former Christian worldview into one more harmonious to Marxism. And there was more.
Whereas conventional Marxist-Leninists were hostile towards the non-Communist left, Gramsci argued that alliances with a broad spectrum of leftist groups would prove essential to Communist victory. In Gramsci's time these included, among others, various "anti-fascist" organizations, trade unions, and socialist political groups. In our time, alliances with the left would include radical feminists, extremist environmentalists, "civil rights" movements, anti-police associations, internationalists, ultra-liberal church groups, and so forth. These organizations, along with open Communists, together create a united front working for the transformation of the old Christian culture.
What Gramsci proposed, in short, was a renovation of Communist methodology and a streamlining and updating of Marx's antiquated strategies. Let there be no doubt that Gramsci's vision of the future was entirely Marxist and that he accepted the validity of Marxism's overall worldview. Where he differed was in the process for achieving the victory of that worldview. Gramsci wrote that "there can and must be a 'political hegemony' even before assuming government power, and in order to exercise political leadership or hegemony one must not count solely on the power and material force that are given by government." What he meant is that it is incumbent upon Marxists to win the hearts and minds of the people, and not to rest hopes for the future solely on force or power.
Furthermore, Communists were enjoined to put aside some of their class prejudice in the struggle for power, seeking to win even elements within the bourgeois classes, a process which Gramsci described as "the absorption of the elites of the enemy classes." Not only would this strengthen Marxism with new blood, but it would deprive the enemy of this lost talent. Winning the bright young sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie to the red banner, wrote Gramsci, "results in [the anti-Marxist forces'] decapitation and renders them impotent." In short, violence and force will not by themselves genuinely transform the world. Rather it is through winning hegemony over the minds of the people and in robbing enemy classes of their most gifted men that Marxism will triumph over all.