Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Thus spake Gramsci

Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Zainul Abedin
(Courtesy The News)

"I turn and turn in my cell like a fly that doesn't know where to die", was the cry of agony by Antonio Gramsci in the prison he was condemned to by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Gramsci painted not just his own pain.

Darkness had fallen upon Italy. Mussolini had seized power in October 1922 and established his rule with a combination of bribe and barbarity. In the November of 1926, faced with a crisis that nearly toppled him, Mussolini had consolidated his regime through emergency laws also known as "Exceptional Laws". Parliament was rendered meaningless. Opponents of the regime were jailed in their thousands; many of them were murdered and quite a few had just--disappeared. The judiciary had winced a bit but had been straightened up. The constitution was being violated with abandon and the laws rewritten. Teachers in schools and universities had to swear an oath of loyalty to the regime. The press too had been gagged with newspapers' offices being attacked, burnt and closed down. Only those who possessed a certificate of approval from the regime could practise journalism. The fiercest opposition to all this was also the most isolated and had not come from the main democratic parties. It was also memorably brave.

The main democratic parties opposing Mussolini's misrule couldn't agree among themselves. They feared mass radicalization as much as they opposed the fascist rule. Gramsci's efforts, in his days of freedom, to win them over to the idea of a countrywide "political strike" had met with failure. He had said:

"Will there be a compromise between fascism and the opposition bloc? A compromise cannot be totally ruled out. However, the crisis which the country is passing through is not a superficial phenomenon, curable with little measures and little expedients. If such a thing occurred, it would mean the suicide of the major democratic parties...There cannot exist a representative assembly under a fascist regime. Every assembly at once becomes a legionaries' encampment, or the antechamber of a brothel for drunken junior officers."

These words had fallen on deaf ears.

But the regime was facing a formidable moral and intellectual challenge in the person of Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theoretician and head of the Italian Communist Party. In his speech to the Italian parliament on May 16, 1925, he had torn to shreds the Great Leader's idea of how he was serving the country and the nation. And then he had said:

"Notwithstanding your…speeches, you have not overcome your contradictions: you have instead made them more strongly felt by the popular classes and the masses. You have added new dust to that already accumulated and you believe you have suppressed with a law the most lethal effects of your own activity."

At one point Mussolini had interrupted the speech saying: "The readers of newspapers don't count. The readers of newspapers are regularly wrong.

"Gramsci had gone on undeterred: "You can conquer the state, you can change the laws, you can seek to stop organizations existing in the form in which they have existed up to now; you cannot prevail against the objective conditions under which you are constrained to move."

This was Gramsci's last speech to the parliament. In accordance with emergency laws, Gramsci was arrested and put in solitary confinement. He was sentenced to more than 20 years of imprisonment through different trials. At one such trial, Gramsci's prosecutor had stated: "For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning." But to the immense benefit of humanity, it wasn't a fly that turned and turned in that cell, but a mighty brain that worked and worked under constant physical and psychic pain. By the time he died, at the age of 46 and having suffered ten long years in prison from Potts disease, arterio-sclerosis and several other ailments, he had written more than 30 notebooks and 3000 pages of history and analysis. In 1947, two years after Mussolini's body was buried in an unmarked grave, these writings known as the Prison Notebooks saw the light of day and became a fountain of critical thinking where many a mind has drunk insight and inspiration. No serious discourse on sociology, politics, state and civil society remains uninformed by Gramsci.

Years before he was arrested and incarcerated, years before anyone else had seen the danger coming, Gramsci, then a 25-year-old radical journalist, had warned Italy in a newspaper editorial against the indifference of the many where a few sections of society are risking their life and limbs for an ideal. He had written:

"Indifference is actually the mainspring of history. But in a negative sense. What comes to pass, either the evil that afflicts everyone, or the possible good brought about by an act of general valour, is due not so much to the initiative of the active few, as to the indifference, the absenteeism of the many. What comes to pass does so not so much because a few people want it to happen, as because the mass of citizens abdicate their responsibility and let things be. They allow the knots to form that in time only a sword will be able to cut through; they let men rise to power whom in time only a mutiny will overthrow. The fatality that seems to dominate history is precisely the illusory appearance of this indifference, of this absenteeism. Events are hatched off-stage in the shadows; unchecked hands weave the fabric of collective life -- and the masses know nothing. The destinies of an epoch are manipulated in the interests of narrow horizons, of the immediate ends of small groups of activists -- and the mass of citizens know nothing. But eventually the events that are hatched come out into the open; the fabric woven in the shadows is completed, and then it seems that fatality overwhelms everything and everybody. It seems that history is nothing but an immense natural phenomenon, an eruption, an earthquake, and that we are all its victims, both those who wanted it to happen as well as those who did not, those who knew it would happen and those who did not, those who were active and those who were indifferent. And then it is the indifferent ones who get angry, who wish to dissociate themselves from the consequences, who want it made known that they did not want it so and hence bear no responsibility. And while some whine piteously, and others howl obscenely, few people, if any, ask themselves this question: had I done my duty as a man, had I sought to make my voice heard, to impose my will, would what came to pass have ever happened? But few people, if any, see their indifference as a fault -- their scepticism, their failure to give moral and material support to those political and economic groups that were struggling either to avoid a particular evil or to promote a particular good. Instead such people prefer to speak of the failure of ideas, of the definitive collapse of programmes, and other like niceties. They continue in their indifference and their scepticism."

Italy eventually saw and suffered one of the most brutal dictatorships known in history. Before his infamous speech proclaiming the end of the democratic illusion, Mussolini had ordered violence on the opposition and prevention of newspapers from publishing dissent, saying that as public opinion saw him firmly in control, "the fence-sitters, the silent majority, and the place-hunters" would all be brought round to him. The same fence-sitters and the same silent majority Gramsci had criticized in his editorial. Having trampled Italy's political conscience, Mussolini made his speech, openly accepting that he had violated all democratic norms and committed all that violence--for the greater good of Italy.

George Orwell, writing at a different time and a different place, but tormented by the same demon of the 'greater good', uttered a piercing shriek: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever". A week later after the publication of "1984", Orwell tempered his despair with hope: "Don't let this happen. It depends on you."

It was as if the spirit of Gramsci had spoken through him.

The writer is a staff member (of The News). Email:


ambreen said...

wow....this is so amazing...history repeats itself...albeit at a different place in a different time...but the characters remains almost exactly the same...and we learn another historical lesson...that we never learn from history

Pangloss said...

Gramsci didn't give a hoot for democracy. He was a communist under the control of Stalin's communist international, in other words he also served a totalitarian master. Just not the same totalitarian master who ruled Italy at the time.