|In every empirical sense of the word|
'victory,' in the battle between Gramsci and
Mussolini at least, the fascist clearly won.
The communist seemed never to have fully
understood the message.
Any student of the works of Antonio Gramsci must be impressed by the incredible courage of this man as a person. I don’t know that Western people today can entirely understand the everyday fear that must have haunted him during the last ten years of his life, which he spent in prison under Benito Mussolini. Gramsci was, in every sense of the word that matters, a casualty of the decades-long war against fascism. He was a lifelong enemy of forces that would show no hesitation to kill him, and he never gave an inch to any of those forces. We do not know this kind of fear in the West today, except perhaps for those rare people who volunteer for our armed forces and serve on the front lines.
In a prison where the fear for his own life must have been a humming constant, Gramsci wrote works aiming to revitalize the revolutionary philosophy that, in almost every realistic context, had been utterly defeated. Marxist orthodoxy included the belief that the march of history was, in some sense, inevitable. The progress of capitalism would stratify society into a bipolar world of ruling class and proletariat, and the growing tension as the former’s exploitation of the latter would eventually lead to a break in the revolution. Even in Marx, there was a streak of the conservative Hegelian, the notion that the dialectical march of history determined, or at least conditioned, the behaviour of individuals.
The Russian Revolution itself was a counter-example to this notion. Marxist orthodoxy of the 1910s would have concluded that Russian capitalism was too primitive for a communist revolution to happen. The society was too rural, the population too spread out among a vast territory, and the economy not nearly industrialized enough for the bourgeois-proletarian tension to reach systematic breaking point.
Gramsci’s writings as a free man, even as they discussed the communist revolution in Italy as inevitable despite its political setbacks, grappled with this tension that the first successful such revolution took place in a country where it should never have occurred. My favourite of these analyses is his discussion of the First World War as the catalyst of Russian proletarian solidarity, literally forging the revolutionary mass in the industrial death machine of artillery and chemical warfare. After all, such mechanized murder on an enormous scale was inconceivable to Marx and Engels when they initially formulated the philosophy of communist revolution. Gramsci could see history itself making the predictions of Marxist orthodoxy obsolete.
The crushing of left wing political movements under the fascist boot was itself a kick to the face of the Marxist notion, prevalent in the revolutionary politics of the time, that capitalist relations and other forms of elite rule were in inevitable decline simply because of the existence of political communism. Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Antonio Salazar, and Hitler proved that wrong.
One should understand, when reading Gramsci, how inspirational it is that the Prison Notebooks exist at all. The victory of fascism would have driven most people to despair and the paralysis of depression. It instead drove Gramsci to an intense theoretical re-evaluation of how revolutionary politics of emancipation could be possible. His imprisonment, despite living in an atmosphere of fear, was a time of intense philosophical creativity, as he crafted a theory of temporal contingency for political revolutions. Only death could keep the flames of his resistance from burning.