By Gaither Stewart – Rome
Dedicated to those who continually raise the bugaboo of the Communist menace to the make-believe, hypocritical, lying and socially perfidious ‘American way of life’.
I visited the tomb of Antonio Gramsci in the Poets’ Cemetery in Rome. An inconspicuous urn resting in the center of the mound contains the ashes of the Marxist philosopher and founder of the Italian Communist Party. The tombstone bears only his name and his dates—1891-1937. The fresh red flowers indicate that the site is tended.
I visited Gramsci’s tomb because I wanted to speak of one of the most representative men of the positive side of Twentieth century Europe, an advocate of a new social-political-economic structure, a major figure in shaping progressive thought from the early XX century. I wanted to speak of Gramsci today because the Italy that many people love is threatened by reaction and Fascistic dictatorship.
The figure of Antonio Gramsci is emblematic of the profound dichotomy between progress and reaction marking Europe since the end of the Nineteenth century. The Marxist Gramsci would have ambivalent feelings about his neighbors in the Poets’ Cemetery: Lying near him are dozens of “White Russians,” the adversaries of the Bolshevik revolution in Tsarist Russia in 1917, which Gramsci supported, while the culture of the Russian exiles was dedicated to maintaining the hegemony of the Russian upper class over the masses, which Gramsci opposed.
Gramsci must have had sympathy for the progressive English poets, John Keats and Percy Byshe Shelley, who lie under two pines in a distant corner of the same cemetery. Keats (“I saw pale kings, and princes too” from his La Belle Dame san merci) wrote, as Gramsci must have at some point, “I am ambitious to do the world some good.” As much as he appreciated their culture and admired Keats’ universal words, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ Antonio Gramsci, did not worship all the names of the Western literary canon because he was mistrustful of the deadly compromises running through the intellectual community and became aware of the difficulty of intellectuals to be free of the dominant social group, as is the case of intellectuals in the USA today.
Born in Sardinia, Gramsci moved to Turin in 1913 and while at the university came into contact with the strong Socialist movement in that north Italian city. He was a co-founder of the Italian Communist Party in 1921 and became its head the year after. Elected to Parliament in 1923, he was arrested by Fascist police three years later and spent most of the rest of his life in prison.
Like Keats, Gramsci hoped to change the world. His point of departure was the Marxist idea that everything in life is determined by capital. The class that controls capital is the dominant class. The capitalist class formulates its ideology to secure its control—or in Gramscian language, its hegemony—over the people. This is the rule of the game everywhere: capitalism acts eternally and uniquely in its own interests; its goal is to acquire more and more of the world’s wealth and power; it is never but never sparked by social motivation.
Class struggle results when the people try to change the rules and take power. Gramsci believed that political action was the correct path to challenge the hegemony of the capitalist class. Though a revolutionary, he did not advocate a totalitarian world outlook. The Marxist Gramsci separated from Leninism, which remained as only one ingredient in his theory for social change.
Leninism is now largely history, and its tenets such as the vertical party format are outdated, while many of Gramsci’s contributions to Socialist thought are intact. Leninism is the opposite of Gramscian intellectual pursuit and culture. In Gramscian thinking revolutionary violence is not the only way to change things. As one of Europe’s major Communist thinkers, Gramsci amended Marx’s conviction that social development originates only from the economic structure. His distinction of and emphasis on culture was a major advance for radical thought, and it still holds today.
Yet, the Italian Marxist considered political freedom a requisite for culture: if religious or political fanaticism suppresses the society, art will not flower. To write propaganda or paint conformist art is to succumb to the allures and/or the coercion of the reigning system. For that reason, most artists, like Keats and Shelly, are countercurrent.
Who Loves Communism?
Rightwing regimes today adore Communism. Just the word “Communist” sets their hearts a flutter. Communism in Italy is the scarecrow that it has been in capitalist America since the Russian Revolution. In countries with less solid democratic traditions, reactionary forces have regularly exploited the threat of Communism to establish dictatorial regimes. Nearly every day you can see it in action. Like terrorism, Communism has been the excuse for emergency laws in the Philippines and Peru as in Chile and Argentina. Emergency laws, special prisons, torture, the sky is the limit in the war against the Communist bugaboo.
Though the Stalinist brand of Communism in East Europe collapsed long ago and those states disappeared, the Right—in Italy, France, Spain, Greece as well as the USA—continues to raise the specter of the “Communist” threat to “family” and “our values” while it co-opts the idea of patriotism, making it such a necessary virtue that not to be anti-Communist is unpatriotic and is to hate one’s native country. As if super-patriotism were moral superiority.
But what is Communism today? Why is the word so frightening? In the minds of non-Communists, Communism is associated with the former USSR. In reality, Communistic ideas are as old as man: a social system characterized by the community of goods and the absence of private property. Such ideas marked the organization of the first Christian communities. Jesus Christ himself is often pinpointed as the first Communist.
Communism first appeared in ancient Greece advocating the community of all goods. In the Nineteenth century communistic ideas inspired reformists all over Europe, ideas of equality and the abolition of private property. What then is so terrible to the average man about the Marxist motto: “From each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs.”
Communist parties born last century from the European Socialist movement called themselves Marxist. The totalitarian parties of East Europe called themselves Communist, but their states were called Socialist republics. For non-Communists they blackened the idea of Communism and Socialism that had inspired earlier reformists. Today, Communist slogans sound more utopian than threatening. Today, Communism in practice is nearly a myth, abstract even in countries that call themselves Communist, like China.
With the broadening of the European Union toward the East the question of Communism is recurrent today since the EU is formed by peoples with opposite perceptions of it. For many East Europeans, Communism in practice was a nightmare. Nor was the exit from totalitarian regimes in East Europe a happy one in that it led some of those countries to blind faith in a savage market economy and abandonment of the spirit of social solidarity.
However, aggressive non-Communists—I don’t call them anti-Communists for as a rule they have no clear idea of just what it is that they oppose—for many people in the world the word Communism is not a dirty word. I repeat: Communism is not a dirty word for billions of people of the world.
Though the totalitarian regimes in East Europe vanished and Communist parties are today marginalized, for the 450,000,000 people of the now twenty-seven nations of the European Union the memory of Communism is alive, even though controversial. Though Communism in practice is no longer considered an alternative to free market democracy, though it no longer aims at revolution and though it is crushed by its Soviet totalitarian past, its memory is alive. Today I spoke with a Romanian woman who assured me that people in Romania as well as in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria “miss” many aspects of Communism, the sense of social security and the aura of solidarity that infused East Europeans despite the infringements on personal freedoms and the errors of the regimes. People speak of the Communist era and compare the relative drawbacks and benefits. What are we to make of that? Such an evaluation would most certainly come as a surprise to anti-Communists.
The question of Communism has not been settled.
Now for a look at the positive side of the question. In West Europe, Communists led the resistance against Nazism. In post-WWII, Communism was at the center of the political opposition. After the economic collapse of Communism in East Europe impoverished by the war against Nazism—which it essentially won at the cost of 20 million lives—the anti-Communist Pole, Pope John Paul II, wrote that Communism was still necessary to combat unbridled Capitalism. In the year before his death, Pope Karol Wojtyla made his famous pronouncement concerning the evils of our times: “Nazism,” he wrote, “was the absolute evil, and Communism the necessary evil,” with the emphasis on “necessary.”
An interesting historical note: At the end of World War II, America was quick to get its hands on Nazi scientists, spies, and officers, war criminals or not, who were known to be anti-Communists. War criminals were helped to avoid war crimes trials in exchange for their cooperation. It emerged that Americans and Germans alike considered Communism and the USSR the real enemy; America recognized Nazi Germans as the most adept Communist hunters in the world, so it made good sense to employ them! Many Americans began to view WWII as a war against Communism not against Nazi Germany and therefore sided with the Fascists against the Communists. According to one view (my view too) of history, the war against Communism began with the German invasion of Russia in 1941 and ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Germany and Japan had fought the first part of the war; from 1945 the USA took over.
Reformed Communist parties abound in modern Europe. In Italy, Communist parties are integrated into progressive forces and have well over ten per cent of the national vote. Communist parties play political roles in France, Spain and other countries, scandalizing only the extreme Right. The original ideas of Communism survive chiefly as a theoretical alternative to rampant capitalism—as the anti-Communist Pope John Paul proclaimed—and a brake on the dismantling of the social state, the goal of capitalist anti-Communists.
Communism has always had multiple faces—political, social, economic and cultural. In some places its roots were deep in society; in some it still enters into traditional political parties as in Italy and France. Perhaps its Christian ideals on one hand and its economic promises on the other explain its survival.
Karl Marx wrote in 1848 that the ghost of Communism haunted Europe. Today, it is the memory of that ghost that resists in Europe and the USA. The ghost however is so powerful that the political Right regularly dangles its threat before the eyes of voters each time they go to the polls.
Residues of Communist culture, the spark of utopia that all men desire, bolster and explain the spirit of anti-capitalism in the world. The memory of Communism also explains the resistance of the social state to an unfettered market economy. It is in man’s interests, while capitalism is anti-man. Communism offers an alternative view of history, another approach to the present, and for some a vision of the future.
In order to put aside the confusion of Stalinism and Communism, I will recall that Antonio Gramsci was one of the early critics of the structures of Stalinist Communism, even though he did not live to experience the degeneration of Soviet Communism. He didn’t know the extent of Stalin’s purges, of the repressions and the deportations of entire peoples, and of the transformation of Communism into Soviet nationalism. On the other hand, since all of history is open to revision, I believe that also Stalinism, as extreme and cruel as it was, will also be reassessed. We should recall that Stalinism and Soviet nationalism were Russia’s response to western encirclement from the Revolution up until today, as America continues to encircle Russia and push back its borders, with US-NATO military bases in Turkey, Iraq, Kosovo, Georgia, Germany, Poland and elsewhere and is now trying to engulf Ukraine, something like New England to the United States.
After Stalin’s death, the revelation of his crimes at the XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 shook the world. That same year the arrival of Soviet tanks in Communist Budapest to crush the uprising of Hungarian workers was the last straw for many Western Communists. In those ideological times, some Western Communists recalled Gramsci’s reservations. Some broke with Moscow. The relationship between West European Communism and the USSR deteriorated. As one Italian Communist recently recalled of the year 1956, “the age of innocence was over.”
Meanwhile, under the unrelenting capitalist onslaught, some of Italy’s social system has been dismantled but the conversion to a market economy has not worked and economic growth is low. The problem of modern market economies is the distribution of wealth, which is anathema to capitalism. As in the USA, the inequalities between rich and poor in much of Europe have never been greater. The richest five per cent of Italy controls a disproportionate part of the nation’s wealth.
While the gap between the rich and poor is widening everywhere, free market exponents cry for more and more “freedom”, freedom for the capitalists to become richer. But everywhere there is a missing factor in the equation: equality. Equality is out. Equality! alarmed free marketers exclaim. An infringement on my freedom! They cry and wring their hands.
But who then is to defend equality? Certainly not capitalists. An inexplicable mystery for free marketers is that people in Social Democratic countries in Scandinavia enjoy the world’s highest standard of living. These mixed economies, part social, part capitalist, work. There, the rich pay dear. They grumble and dodge taxes, but in the end a majority of them accept higher taxes for they realize that future generations of their society will be the better for it. Put any label on it you want, but that is one form of Communism at work.
We don’t need economists to tell us that inequality is incompatible with freedom. Freedom, now one of the most complex words in our vocabulary, is often an evil word. What kind of freedom? Freedom for whom? At whose expense? The truth is that the poor and miserable are seldom represented politically. Who represents the real interests of even the brainwashed ignorant who write in to leftwing publications about the threat from Communism? Who represents the poor in America’s near one-party system? America’s poor, who are poorer than the poor of much of Europe where parts of the staggering social state still survive.
Antonio Gramsci today would agree that though democracy must guarantee fundamental rights like ownership of property, it must also guarantee a decent economic status to everyone, as exists in Scandinavia, as still exists in some of Europe. There is little evidence of infringements on the rights of the rich anywhere; but as far as the poor are concerned, the minimum wage is hardly a sign of equality.
The “social” economy recognizes the existence of inequalities and places limits on them. Market economy theoreticians, on the other hand, explain that inequality is quite a good thing; it is a stimulus to improve one’s position by hard work or innovation; success is a hope for all, an aspiration, something to strive for; it makes a society more vital. That is the “American way of life.” That is Americanist propaganda. To believe in it is to be patriotic.
As in this metaphor: I have gray hair. Yet when I see myself in the mirror I see my hair black as it once was. I have to remind myself that I am looking at an illusion: I have to tell myself that my hair is the gray other people see. It is gray, gray, gray. The same for the US Patriot Act, which is in effect anti-patriotic in that it threatens freedoms. In the same way no seeing sane person can believe that social and economic inequalities are a necessary price to pay for the economic freedom (that word again!) of a few.
First, let’s redistribute wealth dramatically. Then we can talk about acceptance of inequalities as a boast to economic progress.
Gramsci insisted on the role of intellectuals to lead the way toward reform. He recognized the need for an organization. Gramsci considered mass media the chief instrument used by the dominant class to spread its hegemony, but he pointed out that the media could also be used to counter that hegemony. Throughout the world today we see the confrontation—still unequal—between establishment media on one side and the spread of alternative media on the other: ezines, independent publishers and filmmakers and the free press.
-Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His collections of fiction, Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger and Once In Berlin are published by Wind River Press. (www.windriverpress.com ). His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.