Antonio Gramsci and the Fight Against Fascism

Posted by Pete on 22nd Jan 2022

His name is often bandied about - but who was Antonio Gramsci, and how did he end up in prison?

When the Brazilian football legend Sócrates joined Italian side Fiorentina in 1984, he was asked which Italian footballer he most respected. He replied:

“I don’t know them. I’m here to read Gramsci in the original language and to study the history of the workers’ movement.” 

Born on this day in 1891, Antonio Francesco Gramsci remains the most influential Marxist thinker since Marx himself.

Things were tough for Gramsci growing up. Raised in Ales, Sardinia, he had to work odd jobs to bring in much-needed cash for the family.

As a Sardinian, he also developed a particular loathing for Italy’s mainland ruling class which looked down on the rural islanders from its industrial palaces in the North.

But by the early-20th century, a new philosophy had spread like wildfire across the globe: socialism.

Marx died eight years before Gramsci was born, but he was still the most important philosophical influence in the young Italian's life.

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The socialist movement had already taken root in Italy, with the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) founded at Genoa in 1892.

Gramsci was introduced to the movement while at secondary school in Cagliari. He was lodging with his older brother, Gennaro, who had become a socialist while working on the mainland.

Then, in 1911, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin.

Turin, a major car producer, was the beating heart of Italian capitalism and, therefore, of the Italian workers’ struggle.

Gramsci was an exceptional student, but political activism always took priority over his studies.

Having joined the Socialist Party in 1913, he started writing for several radical papers across Italy, like Il Grido del Popolo (The Cry of the People) and Avanti! (Forward!).

The next year, afraid the revolution wouldn’t wait for him, Gramsci quit university without completing his degree.

For Gramsci, there was more important work to be done…

Gramsci's most important contribution to the development of Marxist thought was probably his idea of 'cultural hegemony' whereby the ruling class legitimises its power.

In 1917, the October Revolution broke out in Russia, inspiring hope in socialists across Europe.

Gramsci saw many similarities between Russia and Italy, which both had large peasant populations radicalised by the grim experience of trench warfare in WWI.

And so, when the war ended in 1918, the Italian proletariat rose up.

The Biennio Rosso – Two Red Years – saw workers across the factories of Italy, and especially Turin, seize control of their own workshops.

This coincided with mass strikes and worker uprisings across post-war Europe, from the German Revolution of 1918-19 to the Battle of George Square in Glasgow.

Against this backdrop, Gramsci co-founded the Communist Party of Italy in 1921, splitting off from the more moderate leadership of the Socialist Party.

With a new party to help organise an insurgent working class, it seemed a socialist revolution might actually happen in Italy.

But then came the reaction.

After World War One, radical protest movements rose up across Europe - including in Glasgow, when workers went on strike for better conditions.

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Backed to the hilt by Italian capitalists fearful of a more just social order, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party seized power in October 1922.

State persecution of the Left began in earnest, but Antonio Gramsci defiantly stood his ground as a Communist Deputy in Parliament.

Then, in 1926, the Fascists used an assassination attempt on Mussolini to implement a total crackdown on left-wing dissent.

Despite his parliamentary immunity, Gramsci was arrested in November. He would be in prison for the rest of his life.

Mussolini was scared of Gramsci. A sharp, persuasive Sardinian Communist had the ability to mobilise serious opposition to the new dictatorship.

At the trial, the Fascist prosecutor made clear why Gramsci was being locked up:

“For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.”

Ironically, without the distractions of everyday life, Gramsci’s years in prison ended up being his most intellectually productive.

He scribbled thousands of pages of notes on everything from political theory and economy to the philosophy of language and folklore. Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks have since become one of the most important Marxist texts ever.

But while productive, his years in the Fascist prison system were physically debilitating.

Gramsci, who had braved serious spinal injury and related illnesses since he was a child, was gradually worn down.

Constantly refused adequate medical care, he died in prison on 27 April 1937, a victim of the Fascist regime.

And yet, in the end, it was Mussolini who lost to Gramsci.

Communist partisans, schooled in Gramsci’s Party, overthrew Mussolini. And his Notebooks, smuggled from prison for publication abroad, have remained a tool for anti-fascism and the pursuit of socialism ever since.

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