Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci 1924

Against pessimism


Unsigned, L'Ordine Nuovo, 15 March 1924.


Text from Antonio Gramsci 'Selections from political writings (1921-1926)', translated and edited by Quintin Hoare (Lawrence and Wishart, London 1978), transcribed to the www with the kind permission of Quintin Hoare.


There can be no better way of commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Communist International, of the great world association of which we Italian revolutionaries feel ourselves more than ever to be an active and integral part, than by carrying out a self-examination: an examination of the little we have achieved and of the immense amount that remains to be accomplished. In this way we will help to clarify our situation. In particular we will help to dissipate the dark cloudbanks of heavy pessimism which are today oppressing even the most experienced and responsible militants, and which represent a great danger - perhaps the gravest at the present moment - because of the political passivity, the intellectual torpor and the scepticism towards the future which they produce.

This pessimism is closely linked to the general situation in our country; the situation explains it, but of course does not justify it. What difference would there be between us and the Socialist Party, between our will and the tradition of that party, if we too were only capable of working and were only actively optimistic in the periods of the fat kine: when the situation is propitious, when the working masses move spontaneously through irresistible impulse, and when the proletarian parties can fall comfortably back into the brilliant role of the coachfly? 122 What would be the difference between us and the Socialist Party if we too - even though for different reasons and with a different viewpoint; and even though we had a greater sense of responsibility, and showed that this was the case by our active concern to prepare adequate organizational and material forces to meet any eventuality - abandoned ourselves to fatalism? If we cherished the sweet illusion that events cannot fail to unfold according to a fixed line of development (the one foreseen by us), in which they will inevitably find the system of dykes and canals which we have prepared for them, be channelled by this system and take historical form and power in it? This is the central knot of the problem, which appears tangled in the most complicated way because passivity has the outward appearance of brisk activity; because there appears to be a line of development, a seam which workers are meritoriously sweating and toiling away to excavate.

The Communist International was founded on 5 March 1919, but its ideological and organic formation occurred only at the Second Congress, in July-August 1920, with approval of the Statutes and with the 21 Conditions. It was after the Second Congress that the campaign to restore the Socialist Party to health began in Italy - began on a national scale that is, since it had already been initiated in the previous March by the Turin section with the resolution drawn up for the party's imminent National Council meeting scheduled to be held precisely in Turin, but had produced no significant repercussions. 121 (The Florence Conference of the abstentionist faction, held in July 1920 before the Second World Congress, rejected the proposal made by a representative of L'Ordine Nuovo to enlarge the basis of the faction by making it a communist one, without the abstentionist precondition which in practice had lost much of its raison d'être.) 124

The Livorno Congress, and the split which occurred there, were related to the Second World Congress and its 21 Conditions. They were presented as a necessary conclusion of the "formal" proceedings of the Second Congress. This was an error, and today we can appreciate its full extent by the consequences which it has had. In reality, the proceedings of the Second World Congress were a living interpretation of the Italian situation, as they were of the world situation in general. But we, for a whole series of reasons, did not determine our actions by what was happening in Italy: by the Italian events which proved the Second Congress correct; which were a part, and indeed one of the most important parts, of the political reality which animated the decisions and organizational measures taken by the Second Congress. Instead, we limited ourselves to putting the emphasis on the formal questions, those of pure logic and pure consistency. And we were defeated, because the majority of the politically organized proletariat disagreed with us and did not come with us - even though we had on our side the authority and prestige of the International, which were very great and on which we had relied.

We had not been capable of conducting a systematic campaign, of a kind that could have reached all the nuclei and constitutive elements of the Socialist Party and forced them to reflect. We had not been capable of translating into language that could be understood by every Italian worker and peasant, the significance of each of the Italian events of the years 1919 and 1920. We were not capable, after Livorno, of confronting the problem of why the congress had had the outcome it did. We were not capable of confronting the problem in practice, in such a way as to find the solution; in such a way as to continue our specific mission, which was to win the majority of the Italian people. We were - it must be said - overtaken by events. Without wanting to be, we were an aspect of the general dislocation of Italian society, which had become a burning crucible in which all traditions, all historical formations, all prevailing ideas were melted down, sometimes leaving no trace. We had a consolation - which we embraced with all our strength - in the thought that no one was escaping, but that we could claim to have foreseen mathematically the cataclysm, while the others were cherishing the most blissful and idiotic of illusions.

After the Livorno split, we entered a state of necessity. This is the only justification we can give to our attitudes and activity after Livorno: the necessity which was crudely posed, in the most intense way, in the dilemma of life or death. We had to organize ourselves into a party in the flames of civil war, cementing our sections with the blood of the most dedicated militants. We had to transform our groups, in the very act of their formation and recruitment, into detachments for guerrilla war - for the most atrocious and difficult guerrilla war that a working class has ever had to fight. Yet we succeeded: the party was created and created strongly. It is a phalanx of steel, too small certainly to go into battle against the forces of the enemy, but enough to become the framework for a broader formation: for an army which, to use Italian historical language, can ensure that the battle on the Piave will follow the rout of Caporetto. 125

This is the problem which faces us today, inexorably: how to form a great army for the forthcoming battles, based on the forces which from Livorno to the present day have shown that they are capable of resisting, without wavering or retreating, the attack so violently unleashed by fascism. The development of the Communist International since the Second Congress has provided us with the appropriate terrain for this. It has interpreted once again - with the proceedings of the Third and Fourth Congresses, supplemented by those of the Enlarged Plenums of February and June 1922 and of June 1923 - the Italian situation and its needs. The truth is that we, as a party, have already taken several steps forward in this direction: it only remains for us to take note of them and to proceed boldly.

What is the real significance of the events which have taken place within the Socialist Party, first with the split from the reformists, secondly with the expulsion of the Pagine Rosse editorial group, and thirdly and finally with the attempt to expel the entire third internationalist faction? They have the following precise meaning. While our party as the Italian section was forced to limit its activity to the physical struggle of defence against fascism, and to the preservation of its primordial structure, as an international party it was operating - continuing to operate - to open new paths towards the future; to enlarge the sphere of its political influence; and to shift a part of the masses, who at first stood looking on indifferently or hesitantly, from their position of neutrality. The activity of the International was for a time the only activity which allowed our party to have an effective contact with the broad masses, and which preserved a ferment of discussion and the first stirrings of movement in significant strata of the working class something which it was impossible for us to achieve otherwise in the given situation. It was undoubtedly a great success to have torn blocks away from the Socialist Party matrix; and at the very moment when the situation appeared worst to have managed to create nuclei, from the amorphous socialist jelly, who declared that despite everything they had faith in the world revolution: nuclei which, in action if not in words (which are it seems more painful than action), recognized that they had been wrong in 1920-21-22. This was a defeat of fascism and reaction: it was, if we want to be sincere, the only physical and ideological defeat of fascism and reaction in the last three years of Italian history.

It is necessary to react forcefully against the pessimism of certain groups within our party, including some of the most responsible and experienced comrades. This represents the most serious danger today, in the new situation which is emerging in our country and which will find its sanction and clarification in the first fascist legislature. Big struggles are imminent,. perhaps yet more bloody and arduous than those of the last years. The maximum of energy is therefore necessary on the part of our leaders; the maximum degree of organization and centralization of the mass of party members; a great spirit of initiative and a very great swiftness of decision. Pessimism mainly adopts the following refrain: we are going back to a pre-Livorno situation; we shall have to carry out once again the same work which we carried out before Livorno, and which we thought was definitive. It is necessary to show every comrade how incorrect this position is, both politically and theoretically. Certainly, it will still be necessary to fight hard. Certainly, the task of the basic nucleus of our party formed at Livorno is not yet finished, and will not be for a while yet - it will still be a vital and present task even after the victory of the revolution. But we shall not find ourselves again in a pre-Livorno situation, because the world and Italian situation in 1924 is not what it was in 1920; because we ourselves are no longer what we were in 1920, and would not like ever again to become so. Because the Italian working class has changed greatly, and it will not again be the easiest thing in the world to get it to reoccupy the factories with stovepipes for cannons, after filling its ears and stirring its blood with the vile demagogy of maximalist fair-grounds. Because our party exists, which is something after all, which has proved that it is something, and in which we have limitless faith as the best, healthiest, most honourable part of the Italian proletariat.