Gramsci and Nonviolence
BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 27 August 2012
by Prof. Alberto L’Abate – TRANSCEND Media Service
A short history of these writings
My writings on this argument (a booklet by me and a long article written collectively, with my coordination, by the Sardinia Nonviolent Network) have a long history on their background.
In the years 1955/6, I was working as a voluntary in Danilo Dolci’ project in Sicily. Danilo Dolci is called the”Italian Gandhi” because has used nonviolent action to improve the life of poor peoples, especially peasants, in the area of Palermo, Sicily. When I was there came to work with us an industrialist of Florence (the town where I was living), Giuseppe Ganduscio who had a production (with forty workers) of High Fey and, in the same time, was a collector and singer of Sicilian songs (of work, love, prison). He had left the industry to his co-workers and came to Sicily, the country where he was born, to work, as voluntary, with us. But seeing that most of us did not know anything about his country he started to give lectures about the history and the culture of his region, which were, after, published in a book: “Perchè il Sud si ribella” (Why the South rebels). In his lectures he was inspired by Gramsci ideas about the necessity, to change in better our country, of cooperation and a common struggle between the industrial workers of the North and the peasants of the South. He was a member of the Italian Communist Party and considered as his teacher and inspiration to nonviolence Gramsci. And he was very sad that in sections of the Italian Communist Party the photos of Gramsci were eliminated, for order of the national secretary of that Party, PalmiroTogliatti, because Gramsci was considered not in line with the Party directions. Ganduscio died, still very young, from cancer, a few years later, but his love for Gramsci’s ideas and life had become mine, so I started to read and appreciate his writings.
In 1962 I have participated, in Perugia, at the foundation, by Aldo Capitini, of the Movimento Nonviolento (Nonviolent Movement – the Italian section of War Resisters International). Capitini was a university professor of Philosophy and Pedagogy who has been the first, in Italy, to study Gandhi and his teachings, and to write about them. He, with a few others University professors, had refused to become member of the Fascist Party, and for that reason he was expelled by the chair he had at University, that he got back only when the Fascist regime had fallen down. To earn his life, during the Fascist Era, he gave private lessons of these subjects to students. Capitini died in 1968.
Some years after his death, in 1973, at the University of Florence, were I was teaching as voluntary assistant of Prof. Antonio Carbonaro, a sociologist, with the help of the Nonviolent Movement, I organized the first conference on “Nonviolence and Marxism in the transition to Socialism”. To this we have invited thinkers and students of nonviolence (as Giuliano Pontara, the editor of the first anthology of writing of Gandhi), some of the practitioners of it (as Lorenzo Barbera, co-worker of Dolci), some of the most relevant students of Marxism, as Lelio Basso, and of democracy, as Norberto Bobbio, and also some important catholic thinker, as my colleague sociologist of religions, Arnaldo Nesti. One of the most important ideas which came out of this conference was a strong critique of the ways the social democrats had treated the problem of this transition for their underrating the necessity of a nonviolent revolution, like that preached by Gramsci, and their consideration of reformism as the only possible way of this transition.
In 1978, ten years after the death of Aldo Capitini, in Perugia, his native town, the Regional Government of Umbria, with the Nonviolent Movement, has organized a second conference on the same subject. In addition to some of the participants to the first conference, many others students, both Marxist and not Marxist, were invited. In this conference the proposal of a third, nonviolent way to socialism, between reformism, on one side, and a violent revolution, on the other side, was presented, especially by Giuliano Pontara, with deep arguments. But also in this occasion the proposal has not be accepted by our interlocutors, Marxist and not Marxists, naturally with different reasons.
In 1992, in Ghilarza (Sardinia), the town in which Gramsci has passed his youth, by the local House Gramsci and the House for Peace was organized a conference on “Gramsci and Nonviolence”, with two important students of his writings, (one Marxist and the other a catholic priest) in which I was asked to introduce the discussion. But, unlikely, the official recording of that conference got lost, so for many years we could not have anything written on this conference. Some years later an unofficial recording of the conference came out, so, at request of some friends of the House of Peace of Ales (the town of birth, in Sardinia, of Gramsci) I took this material and with the help also of my notes, and some others, on the conference works, written by hand by my wife, I wrote the first article on this argument, which had a first publication in 2010, by a local section of Nonviolent Movement in Florence, and is now under publication by the Gramsci’s House of Ales.
In the summer 2011 the House for Peace of Ghilarza, with the help of the “Nonviolent Sardinia Network” has organized a seminar of five days on the same subject: “Gramsci and Nonviolence”, coordinated by me. In this seminar the twelve peoples participating were divided in three groups of work, to whom were given to read many pages of writings of and on Gramsci, lectures which could serve to validate or invalidate my hypothesis on this subject. The seminar was concluded with a document written collectively, with a technique inspired by the work of an Italian nonviolent priest, Don Lorenzo Milani. This document was presented, and discussed, the last day of the seminar, at the Gramsci’s House of Ales, which is now publishing it together with the first booklet.
The first debate in Ghilarza
In my introduction to that conference (1992) I presented “Seven hypotheses on the relationship between Gramsci and Nonviolence”. Let us see them:
1) A first hypothesis is that an initial link between Gramsci and nonviolence is the great importance he ascribed to politics as a moral act, i.e. linked to ethical values, to truth, and to self-discipline.
2) A second hypothesis is about Gramsci’s conception of human beings: he would not believe in “mass man”, he figured out a human being as an individual tightly bound, and linked to other humans through continuous interlink relations. And reading him clearly highlights the relevance of single humans and the need to train people to feel all responsible of what is going on around the world.
3) The third hypothesis is the bond between construction and destruction, which could be also called the importance of a constructive project. Gramsci wrote: “He who destroys what is old in order to expose new sprouts which have become badly needed and relentlessly press to crop out of the fallows of history, is a destroyer-builder. Then it can be said that one destroys inasmuch as one creates”. Hence it follows that a new world is to be built inside the old one and, as the new one grows up, the old one slowly crumbles and is shattered.
4) The fourth hypothesis is closely linked to the previous one: the importance Gramsci ascribed to trench warfare against onslaught war, i.e. rather than a front clash, an array of lengthy but continuous processes of grabbing positions and building “bunkers” as outpost of the would-be society to build amid the old one to destroy. This peculiar warfare, with advances and defeats and yet more advances, is what Gramsci sees fit in advanced, so called democrat, western countries,.
5) The fifth hypothesis is about the importance of a grassroots organization and of bottom-up control that can be termed the revolution from the bottom. Throughout his thinking, he was keen on enhancing the importance of grassroots organization, of workers ‘groups and councils, of various bottom bodies, purposely organized to come up with a new society and put an end – though a slow one – to the old exploiting capitalist one. That is, giving rise to a sort of bottom counter-power capable of imbuing little by little and transforming the whole society.
6) The sixth hypothesis is the shift of a proletarian dictatorship idea over to a hegemony concept. The latter does also include moments of sharing and consent by all groups, not just the leading (hegemonic) one, which implies a staunch effort to persuade and win over to one’s own ideas viewpoints. This poses at the first point the “cultural supremacy by the working class”.
7) A final hypothesis, quite instructive for nonviolent movements, is the overcoming of the working class myth, in which workers of big factories in developed countries are seen as main levers of a revolutionary process. This should have happened, then, in the most industrialized areas, which is definitely not the case. Such a theory marginalized, in the process, southern farmers and peoples in non-industrialized countries, where, on the contrary, several socialist-inspired revolutions occurred.
The reaction of the two experts called to discuss these thesis was much different: the Marxist one did not agree nearly completely, the priest, on the contrary, was much in accord with them.
The Marxist considered that Gransci could not be “nonviolent” as, in his opinion, he accepted the Marxist idea that “violence is history’s midwife “. And that Gramsci considered the ideas of Gandhi, Tolstoy and others pacifists, naïf theorizations.
My answer to the first critic was that Gramsci’s stand on violence seemed to me much more complex and articulated. From many quotes what turns out is not so much an acceptance of violence and war as a means of social change, but rather the notion that war is made indispensable by letting “the crowds in a state of ignorance”, and by having failed to do anything to do away with the state of savagery they have been left in. And just to overcome both such conditions Gramsci rates so highly people’s education and training as well as a bottom-up revolutionary approach. Gramsci seems to badly suffer facing violence, and to see it not as people’s wished but rather as due to capitalism itself and to the leaders ‘inability to grasp the crowds’ real needs. So, to Gramsci, violence is somehow compelled, caused by others, and not chosen by the peoples themselves.
My answer to the second critique about the ingenuousity of pacifist thought was: that, at first sight, that “suspicion” by Gramsci toward pacifism, and his belittling pacifist stands, seen as history-alien utopia seeking ‘everlasting peace’, might look like a negative assessment of nonviolence too. All he actually does, in fact, is distinguishing peace as ‘warlessness’, the so-called negative peace, from positive peace, entailing social and international relationships not based on injustice, exploitation, and inequality (against what Galtung termed as ‘structural violence’), like the nonviolent movements themselves do, striving against both violences. Gramsci’s standpoint indeed shows the inconsistencies of a pacifism seeing peace as sheer lack of “direct violence”, while wholly neglecting “structural violence”, though the latter is looming more and more threatening, also due to the so-called “globalization” process, and is using pacifism as a smoke curtain to conceal its contradictions. In such a judgement, we can therefore see, rather than a gap, a kinship between Gramsci’s thought and nonviolence. That affinity could further show up in many quotes showing how nonviolence itself is no lack of conflict but rather a new, often more effective, way of struggling against abuses of power and injustice, as well as no “violence dismissal”, but its ”overcoming”, that is an attempt to attain such values as truth, justice, fairness, self-reliance, socialism – which also Gramsci was striving for – even with no recourse to direct violence, but rather by directly involving all people, mainly the outcast, obvious stakeholders of a radical change from below of our own and other European countries
In complex I had the impression that our Marxist interlocutor was much influenced by the positions of the Italian Communist Party, and its denial of Gramsci thinking. The reasons of this internal struggle were because the leadership of the Party thought, before, possible to follow in Italy the Leninist violent revolution, that Gramsci thought, on the contrary, not possible to export to our country, and after, with the acceptance by this Party of the so called “historical compromise”, because the Party renounced to this idea accepting reformism as his main strategy in our country, considering this a “nonviolent” choice, much in contradiction to the nonviolent thinkers who were much in favour, as Gramsci, for a nonviolent revolution from below.
The summer seminar in 2011
The unofficial records we got of the first conference could not allow us to understand the intervention of the priest, as, probably, he was speaking too far from the recorder, so, in my first publication his intervention was neglected. But in the summer seminar 2011, thanks to a book of this priest lent to us by the House Gramsci of Ales I could read an article of him which remembered me his intervention. In this he underlines the importance, for transforming the capitalist society, of the process of coscientization and the development of self-discipline by the proletarian class. This process can transform the place of production in a place where this class can freely decide on how and what to produce. And he considers this process not a reformist change but a revolutionary. This seems to me in line with our hypothesis about the importance of a nonviolent revolution from below by Gramsci.
As said before in the seminar were organized three subgroups which had the duty to read documents, on the subject chosen by them, of Gramsci and on Gramsci. The three groups had to validate or invalidate the hypothesis chosen by that group and presented in the first booklet, which all of them had read. The subjects of this three group were: 1) moral and politics. This group had, among his tasks, to see if Gramsci accepted, or not, the political conception, drown up to Machiavelli, that:”the aim justify the means”; 2) violence and nonviolence. This group had, among his tasks, to see if the hypothesis of Gramsci as a nonviolent revolutionary, which was looking for a way to free the proletarian class different from reformism, from one side, and from massimalism, on the other side, was valid. From reformism because inadequate to bring the serious changes needed to free this class from his slavery, from massimalism, because this people, waiting for the Leninist revolution, don’t do anything to change the reality around them; 3) trench warfare against onslaught war. This group had to see if the texts read were supporting the idea of the importance, for Gramsci, in our society, of the first type of war instead of the second, i.e. rather than a front clash, an array of lengthy but continuous processes of grabbing positions and building “bunkers” as outpost of the would-be society to build amid the old one to destroy.
All the subgroups did not find any element to invalidate their hypothesis; on the contrary they found many others quotations which gave to their hypothesis a stronger position. For an example, the first group found that Gramsci did not accept the common conception that every individual behaviour, also the more violent and amoral, would be justified by the influence of their social environment. For him this type of belief empty the individual of any responsibility on his actions. Writes Gramsci that if the individual, to change, would have had the necessity that all the society should be changed, History would not move and there would not be ever changes and progresses. And the second group speaks, as an example, on the position of Gramsci toward the illegal actions of the State. To these, Gramsci thinks we must not answer in the same way for at least two reasons: 1) using the same means would be ineffective and lousing, 2) utilizing the same means we risk that the State who has previously acted illegally would become, in the eyes of the people, a defence of legality. And the third group, on the concept of hegemony and the difference between “trench warfare” and “onslaught war” writes that Gramsci thinks that the hegemony, also not excluding completely the use of force, can be reached only with the consensual model, through the elaboration and the realization of new experiences in all fields of social, political, economical, cultural life. This group, in his concluding notes, writes that Gramsci, in complex, is demonstrating an opening toward the construction of a new world which put him, in a certain way, close to the positions of nonviolence, and that, when he speaks of consensus, of grass root participation, of self-management and self-government, and of maturing of one’s self, the people who considers themselves as nonviolent must think to Gramsci as a master.
Goa, the 28th February 2012
The two texts I mention in this article have been both edited integrally by the Association of the birth house of Gramsci in Ales (Sardinia) in his last book “Antologia Premio Gramsci XII edizione”, Ales – Gennaio 2011 published by Editrice Democratica Sarda, Sassari first edition april 2012.
Paper presented in Tamilnadu, at the Gandhigram University, and by the “Sarvodaya Talisman” Journal at Madurai.
Prof. Alberto L’Abate is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.
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