Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci 1924

The Italian crisis

Signed Antonio Gramsci, L'Ordine Nuovo, 1 September 1924. Previously published with the title "The crisis of the middle classes" in L'Unittà, 26 August 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.

The radical crisis of the capitalist order, which in Italy as in the entire world began with the War, has not been cured by fascism. Fascism, with its repressive method of government, had made very difficult and indeed almost totally prevented the political manifestations of the general capitalist crisis. However, it has not succeeded in halting this crisis; and even less has it succeeded in renewing and developing the national economy. It is generally said, and even we communists are accustomed to assert, that the present Italian situation is characterized by the ruin of the middle classes. This is true, but it must be understood in all its significance. The ruin of the middle classes is damaging, because the capitalist system is not developing but instead is undergoing a contraction. It is not a phenomenon apart, which can be examined - and whose consequences can be provided against - independently from the general conditions of the capitalist economy. It is precisely the crisis of the capitalist order, which no longer succeeds and will not again succeed in satisfying the vital requirements of the Italian people; which does not succeed in guaranteeing bread and a roof over their heads to the great mass of Italians. The fact that the crisis of the middle classes is in the foreground today, is merely a contingent political fact. It is merely the form of the period, which precisely for that reason we call "fascist". Why? Because fascism arose and developed on the terrain of this crisis in its initial phase. Because fascism struggled against the proletariat and rose to power by exploiting and organizing the lack of consciousness and the lack of spirit of the petty bourgeoisie, drunk with hatred for the working class which, through the strength of its organization, was succeeding in attenuating the repercussions upon it of the capitalist crisis.

For fascism is becoming exhausted and dying precisely because it has not kept any of its promises, has not satisfied any hopes, has not alleviated any misery. It has broken the revolutionary impetus of the proletariat, dispersed the class unions, lowered wages and increased hours; but this was not enough to guarantee even a limited vitality to the capitalist system. For that, a lowering of the living- standards of the middle classes was also necessary; the looting and pillaging of the petty-bourgeois economy; hence the stifling of all freedoms and not just of proletarian freedoms; and hence a struggle not just against the working-class parties, but also and especially at a given stage against all the non-fascist political parties, against all associations not directly controlled by official fascism.

Why has the crisis of the middle classes had more radical consequences in Italy than in other countries? Why has it created fascism and carried it to State power? Because in our country, given the scanty development of industry and the regional character of what industry there is, not only is the petty bourgeoisie very numerous, but it is also the only class that is "territorially" national. The capitalist crisis, in the years following the War, had also taken the acute form of a collapse of the unitary State and thus encouraged the rebirth of a confusedly patriotic ideology, so that there was no other solution than the fascist one - once the working class had in 1920 failed in its task of creating by its own means a State capable of also satisfying the unitary national needs of Italian society.

The fascist régime is dying because it has not merely failed to halt, but has actually helped to accelerate the crisis of the middle classes initiated after the War. The economic aspect of this crisis consists in the ruin of small and medium firms: the number of bankruptcies has multiplied rapidly in the last two years. The monopoly of credit, the fiscal régime and legislation on rents have crushed the small commercial and industrial enterprise. A real transfer of wealth has taken place from the small and medium to the big bourgeoisie, without any development of the productive apparatus. The small producer has not even become proletarian. He is simply permanently hungry; a desperate man without prospects for the future. Nor has the application of fascist violence to compel savers to invest their capital in a particular direction brought much advantage to the small industrialists. When it has been successful, it has only ricocheted the effects of the crisis from one stratum to another, increasing the already great discontent and distrust among savers caused by the existing monopoly in the sphere of banking, and further aggravated by the coup de main tactics which the big entrepreneurs have to resort to in the general distress in order to secure credit.

In the countryside, the development of the crisis is more closely linked with the fiscal policy of the fascist State. From 1920 to today, the average budget of a family of share-croppers or small-holders has undergone a deterioration of some 7,000 lire, through tax increases, worsened contractual conditions, etc. The crisis of the small farm in northern and central Italy is now typical. In the South new factors are intervening, the main one being the absence of emigration and the resulting increase in demographic pressure. This is accompanied by a diminution of the cultivated area and hence of the harvest. The grain harvest last year was 68 million quintals in the whole of Italy, i.e. it was above average taking the country as a whole, yet it was below average in the South. This year, the harvest was below average throughout Italy; it failed completely in the South. The consequences of this situation have not yet shown themselves in a violent fashion, because in the South there exist backward economic conditions which prevent the crisis from at once revealing itself fully as happens in advanced capitalist countries. Nevertheless, in Sardinia serious episodes of popular discontent brought about by economic hardship have already occurred.

The general crisis of the capitalist system has thus not been halted by the fascist régime. Under the fascist régime, the existential possibilities of the Italian people have diminished. A restriction of the productive apparatus has taken place, at the very time when demographic pressure was increasing due to the difficulties of overseas emigration. The limited industrial apparatus has only been able to save itself from complete collapse by lowering the living standards of the working class, squeezed by smaller wages, longer working hours and the high cost of living. The result has been an emigration of skilled workers, in other words an impoverishment of the human productive forces which were one of the greatest national riches. The middle classes, who placed all their hopes in the fascist régime, have been overwhelmed by the general crisis; indeed they themselves have become precisely the expression of the capitalist crisis in this period.

These elements, briefly alluded to, serve only to recall the full significance of the present situation, which contains within it no possibility of economic revival. The Italian economic crisis can only be resolved by the proletariat. Only by participating in a European and world revolution can the Italian people regain the ability to utilize fully its human productive forces, and to restore development to the national productive apparatus. Fascism has merely delayed the proletarian revolution, it has not made it impossible. Indeed, it has helped to enlarge and enrich the terrain of the proletarian revolution, which after the fasicst experiment will be a truly popular one.

The social and political disintegration of the fascist régime had its first mass demonstration in the elections of 6 April. Fascism was put clearly into a minority in the Italian industrial zone, in other words where the economic and political power which dominates the nation and the State resides. The elections of 6 April, showing that the régime's stability was only apparent, gave heart again to the masses; stimulated a certain movement among them; and marked the beginning of that democratic wave which came to a head in the days immediately following the assassination of Matteotti, and which still characterizes the situation today. 114 After the elections, the opposition forces acquired an enormous political importance. The agitation they carried on in the press and in parliament, contesting and denying the legitimacy of the fascist government, acted powerfully to dissolve all the State organisms controlled and dominated by fascism. It had repercussions within the national Fascist Party itself, and it cracked the parliamentary majority. This was the reason for the unprecedented campaign of threats against the opposition, and for the assassination of the Unitary Socialist deputy. The storm of indignation provoked by the crime took the Fascist Party by surprise, and it shivered in panic and was lost. The three documents written at that painful moment by Finzi, Filipelli and Cesarino Rossi (and made known to the opposition) show how the very highest levels of the party had lost all confidence and were piling error upon error. From that moment, the fascist régime entered its deathagony. It is still sustained by its so-called fellow-travelling forces, but it is sustained in the way that the rope supports the hanged man.

The Matteotti murder gave the irrefutable proof that the fascist party will never succeed in becoming a normal government party, and that Mussolini possesses nothing of the statesman or dictator other than a few picturesque external poses. He is not an element of national life, he is a phenomenon of rustic folklore, destined to be remembered in stories like one of those mask-characters from the Italian provinces rather than like a Cromwell, a Bolivar or a Garibaldi.

The popular anti-fascist upsurge provoked by the Matteotti assassination found a political form in the secession of the opposition parties from the chamber of Parliament. The opposition Assembly, in reality, became a national political centre around which the majority of the country was organized. The crisis which had exploded in the emotional and moral sphere thus acquired a distinct institutional character. A State was created within the State, an anti-fascist government against the fascist government. The Fascist Party was powerless to check the situation. The crisis had totally overwhelmed it, devastating the ranks of its organization. The first attempt to mobilize the national militia failed utterly, with only 20 per cent answering the call; in Rome, only 800 militiamen presented themselves at the barracks. The mobilization only produced substantial results in a few rural provinces, such as Grosseto and Perugia, which made it possible to bring down to Rome a few legions ready to face a bloody struggle.

The opposition forces still remain the fulcrum of the popular antifascist movement. Politically, they represent the upsurge of democracy which is characteristic of the present phase of the Italian social crisis. In the beginning, the opinion of the great majority of the proletariat was also oriented towards these opposition forces. It was the duty of us communists to seek to prevent such a state of affairs from becoming permanently consolidated. Therefore, our parliamentary group joined the Opposition Committee, accepting and emphasizing the main feature which the political crisis was assuming with the existence of two powers and two parliaments. If they had wanted to carry out their duty, which was indicated by the masses in movement, the opposition forces would have had to give a definite political form to the state of affairs that existed objectively - but they refused. It would have been necessary to launch an appeal to the proletariat, which is alone capable of giving substance to a democratic régime. It would have been necessary to intensify the spontaneous strike movement which was beginning to emerge. The opposition forces were afraid of being overwhelmed by a possible working-class insurrection. Hence, they did not want to leave the purely parliamentary terrain to enter upon political questions. They did not want to leave the terrain of a trial for Matteotti's assassins to enter upon a campaign to keep the agitation alive throughout the country. The communists, who could not accept the form of a bloc of parties which the opposition forces gave to the Committee, were ejected.

Our participation in the Committee in an initial stage, and our exit from it at a subsequent stage, have had the following consequences. 1. They have allowed us to survive the most acute phase of the crisis without losing contact with the broad working mases. If it had remained isolated, our party would have been overwhelmed by the democratic upsurge. 2. We have broken the monopoly of public opinion which the opposition forces threatened to establish. A greater and greater part of the working class is becoming convinced that the bloc of opposition forces represents a semi-fascism which wants to reform and soften the fascist dictatorship, without causing the capitalist system to lose any of the benefits which terror and illegality have secured for it in the last years, with the lowering of the Italian people's living standards.

The objective situation, after two months, has not changed. There still de facto exist two governments in the country, fighting each other in competition for the real forces of the bourgeois State organization. The outcome of the struggle will depend on the repercussions of the general crisis within the national Fascist Party, on the definitive attitude of the parties which make up the opposition bloc, and on the actions of the revolutionary proletariat led by our party.

In what does the crisis of fascism consist? To understand it, some say that it is first necessary to define the essence of fascism. But the truth is that there does not exist any essence of fascism as such. The essence of fascism in 1922-3 was provided by a particular system of relations of force that existed in Italian society. Today, this system has changed profoundly, and the "essence" has evaporated to some extent. The characteristic feature of fascism consists in the fact that it has succeeded in creating a mass organization of the petty bourgeoisie. It is the first time in history that this has happened. The originality of fascism consists in having found the right form of organization for a social class which has always been incapable of having any cohesion or unitary ideology: this form of organization is the army in the field. The Militia is thus the fulcrum of the national Fascist Party: one cannot dissolve the militia without also dissolving the party as a whole. There does not exist a Fascist Party that can turn quantity into quality; that is an apparatus for political selection of a class or a stratum. There only exists a mechanical aggregate, undifferentiated and impossible to differentiate from the point of view of intellectual and political capabilities, which only lives because it has acquired in the civil war an extremely strong esprit de corps, crudely identified with the national ideology. Outside the sphere of military organization, fascism has not contributed and cannot contribute anything; and even in this sphere, what it can contribute is very relative.

The product of circumstances in this way, fascism is not capable of realizing any of its ideological premisses. Fascism today says that it aims to conquer the State: at the same time, it says that it aims to become a prevalently rural phenomenon. How the two assertions can be reconciled is hard to understand. To conquer the State, it is necessary to be capable of replacing the dominant class in those functions which have an essential importance for the government of society. In Italy, as in all capitalist countries, to conquer the State means first and foremost to conquer the factory; it means to have the capability of taking over from the capitalists in governing the country's productive forces. This can be done by the working class, it cannot be done by the petty bourgeoisie, which has no essential function in the productive field; which in the factory, as an industrial category, exercises a function that is mainly of a police nature, not a productive one. The petty bourgeoisie can conquer the State only by allying itself with the working class, only by accepting the programme of the working class: soviet system instead of parliament in the State organization; communism and not capitalism in the organization of the national and international economy.

The formula "conquest of the State" is empty of meaning in the mouths of the fascists, or has only one meaning: to devise an electoral mechanism which gives a parliamentary majority to the fascists for ever, and at all costs. The truth is that all of fascist ideology is a toy for the state nurseries: a dilettantesque improvisation, which in the past under favourable circumstances was able to delude its followers, but which today is destined to become an object of ridicule even among the fascists themselves. The only active residue of fascism is the military esprit de corps cemented by the danger of an outburst of popular vengeance. The political crisis of the petty bourgeoisie, the passage of the overwhelming majority of this class beneath the banner of the opposition forces, the failure of the general measures announced by the fascist leaders can considerably reduce the military effectiveness of fascism, but they cannot annul it.

The system of democratic anti-fascist forces draws its main strength from the existence of the parliamentary Opposition Committee, which has succeeded in imposing a certain discipline on a whole spectrum of parties which goes from the maximalists to the popolari. The fact that maximalists and popolari obey the same discipline and work within the same programmatic plan - that is the most characteristic feature of the situation. This fact makes the process of development of events slow and painful, and determines the tactic of the opposition forces as a whole: a waiting tactic, of slow encircling manceuvres and patient pounding away at all the positions of the fascist government. The Maximalists, with their membership of the Committee and their acceptance of its common discipline, guarantee the passivity of the proletariat. They assure the bourgeoisie, still hesitating between fascism and democracy, that autonomous action of the working class will no longer be possible - except much later, when the new government has already been set up and strengthened, and is already able to crush any uprising of the masses disillusioned both by fascism and by democratic anti-fascism. The presence of the popolari is a guarantee against an intermediate fascist-popolare solution like that of October 1922. Such a solution would become very likely, because imposed by the Vatican, in the event of a detachment of the maximalists from the bloc and alliance on their part with us.

The main effort of the intermediate parties (reformists and constitutionalists), assisted by the left popolari, has so far been directed towards the following aim: to hold the two extremes together within the same bloc. The servile spirit of the maximalists has adapted itself to the role of the fool in the theatre: the maximalists have accepted to count for the same as the peasants' party or the Rivoluzione Liberale groups within the opposition bloc.

The main forces have been contributed to the opposition by the popolari and the reformists, who have a considerable following in the cities and in the countryside. The influence of these two parties is complemented by Amendola's Constitutionalists, who bring to the bloc the adherence of broad strata of the army, the war-veterans and the Court. The agitational division of labour between the various parties is made according to their traditions and social roles. The Constitutionalists, since the tactics of the bloc aim to isolate fascism, have the political leadership of the movement. The popolari wage a moral campaign based on the trial and its interconnections with the fascist régime; with the corruption and criminality that have flourished around the régime. The reformists combine both these positions, and make themselves ever so tiny, so that everybody will forget their demagogic past; so that everybody will believe that they have redeemed themselves and become indistinguishable from Hon. Amendola or Senator Albertini.

The solid and united stance of the opposition forces has chalked up some considerable successes. It is undoubtedly a success to have provoked the crisis of "fellow-travelling"; in other words, to have compelled the liberals to differentiate themselves actively from fascism and pose conditions to it. This has had, and will have even more, repercussions within fascism itself-, and it has created a duality of power between the Fascist Party and the central war-veterans' organization. But it has shifted the centre of gravity of the opposition bloc even further to the right; in other words, it has accentuated the conservative character of anti-fascism. The Maximalists have not noticed this; they are ready to provide the coloured troops not only for Amendola and Albertini, but also for Salandra and Cadorna.

How will this duality of power be resolved? Will there be a compromise between fascism and the opposition bloc? And if a compromise is impossible, will we have an armed struggle? A compromise cannot be totally ruled out; however, it is very unlikely. The crisis which the country is passing through is not a superficial phenomenon, curable with little measures and little expedients. It is the historic crisis of Italian capitalist society, whose economic system is shown to be insufficient for the needs of the population. All relations are exacerbated. Immense masses of people await something very different than a petty compromise. If such a thing occurred, it would mean the suicide of the major democratic parties. An armed insurrection with the most radical aims would at once be placed on the agenda of national life. Fascism, by the nature of its organization, does not tolerate collaborators with equal rights; it only wants chained slaves. There cannot exist a representative assembly under a fascist régime. Every assembly at once becomes a legionaries' encampment, or the antechamber of a brothel for drunken junior officers. Thus the chronicle of each day's events only records a succession of political episodes denoting the disintegration of the fascist system; the slow but inexorable detachment from the fascist system of all peripheral forces.

Will there be an armed clash then? Any struggle on a grand scale will be avoided equally by the opposition forces and by fascism. What will happen will be the opposite to the phenomenon of October 1922, when the March on Rome was the choreographic parade of a molecular process through which the real forces of the bourgeois State (army, magistrature, police, press, Vatican, free-masonry, court, etc.) had passed over to the side of fascism. If fascism were to attempt to resist, it would be destroyed in a long civil war in which the proletariat and the peasants could not fail to take part. The opposition bloc and fascism do not want an all-out struggle to break out, and will systematically avoid one. Fascism will instead seek to preserve the basis of an armed organization, which it can put back into the field as soon as a new revolutionary upsurge appears on the horizon - something which is very far from displeasing the Amendolas and Albertinis of this world, or even the Turatis and Treves.

The drama will unfold, in all likelihood, on a fixed date; it is arranged for the day when the Chamber of Deputies should reopen. The military choreography of October 1922 will be replaced by a more sonorous democratic choreography. If the opposition forces do not return to Parliament, and the fascists - as they are saying convene the majority as a fascist Constituent Assembly, then we shall have a meeting of the opposition bloc and a show of struggle between the two assemblies.

However, it is possible that the solution will be found in the parliament chamber itself, where the opposition forces will return in the very likely event of a split in the majority putting the Mussolini government clearly into a minority. In that case, we shall have the formation of a provisional government of generals, senators and former Prime Ministers, the dissolution of Parliament and a state of emergency.

The terrain upon which the crisis evolves will continue to be the trial for Matteotti's murder. We shall see further highly dramatic phases of this, when the three documents of Finzi, Filipelli and Rossi are made public and the highest personalities of the régime are swept away by popular indignation. All the real forces of the State, and especially the armed forces, which are already beginning to be the subject of discussion, will have to align themselves clearly on one side or the other, imposing the solution that has already been mapped out and agreed upon.

What should be the political attitude and the tactics of our party in the present situation? The situation is "democratic", because the broad working masses are disorganized, dispersed and fragmented into the undifferentiated people. Hence, whatever the immediate evolution of the crisis may be, we can only foresee an improvement in the political position of the working class, not a victorious struggle for power. The crucial task of our party consists in winning the majority of the working class. The phase which we are passing through is not that of a direct struggle for power, but rather a preparatory phase, of transition to the struggle for power: in short, a phase of agitation, propaganda and organization. This, of course, does not rule out the possibility that savage conflicts may take place. And it does not mean that our party must not at once prepare itself and be ready to confront these. Quite the contrary. But these conflicts too must be seen in the context of the transitional phase, as elements of propaganda and agitation for winning the majority. If there exist within our party fanatical groups and tendencies which want to force the situation, it will be necessary to struggle against these in the name of the entire party, in the name of the vital and permanent interests of the Italian proletarian revolution.

The Matteotti crisis has offered us many lessons in this respect. It has taught us that the masses, after three years of terror and oppression, have become very prudent and want to cut their coat according to their cloth. This prudence is called reformism, it is called maximalism, it is called "opposition bloc". It is destined to disappear, certainly, and in the not too distant future. But for the moment it exists, and can only be overcome if at all times, on every occasion and at every moment, although moving forward, we maintain contact with the working class as a whole. Thus we must combat every rightist tendency which seeks a compromise with the opposition bloc, and which seeks to obstruct the revolutionary development of our tactics and our work of preparation for the next stage.

The first task of our Party consists in equipping itself to become fitted for its historic mission. In every factory and every village there must exist a communist cell, which represents the Party and the International; which knows how to work politically; which shows initiative. Hence, it is necessary to struggle against a certain passivity which still exists among our comrades, and against the tendency to keep the ranks of the Party narrow. On the contrary, we must become a great Party, we must seek to draw into our organizations the greatest possible number of revolutionary workers and peasants, in order to educate them for struggle, form them into mass organizers and leaders, and raise their political level. The workers' and peasants' State can only be built if the revolution has many politically qualified elements at its disposal. The struggle for the revolution can be waged victoriously only if the broad masses are, in all their local formations, organized and led by solid and capable comrades. Otherwise we are really going back, as the reactionaries clamour, to the years 1919-20: in other words, to the years of proletarian impotence; to the years of maximalist demagogy; to the years of working-class defeat. We communists do not want to go back to the years 1919-20 either.

The Party must carry out an enormous amount of work in the tradeunion field. Without big trade-union organizations, there is no way out of parliamentary democracy. The reformists may want little trade unions, and may seek only to create guilds of skilled workers. We communists want the opposite from the reformists, and must struggle to re-unionize the broad masses. Certainly, it is necessary to pose the problem concretely and not just formally. The masses have abandoned the unions because the CGL although it has great political effectiveness (it is nothing other than the Unitary Socialist Party), is indifferent to the vital interests of the masses. We cannot propose to create a new body designed to make up for the Confederation's truancy. But we can and must set ourselves the problem of developing a real activity through the factory and village cells.

The Communist Party represents the totality of the interests and aspirations of the working class: we are not a mere parliamentary party. Our party therefore carries on a genuine trade-union activity. It puts itself at the head of the masses also in the little daily struggles for wages, for working hours, for industrial discipline, for accommodation, for bread. Our cells must push the internal commissions to incorporate all proletarian activities within their operations. It is, therefore, necessary to create a broad factory movement that can develop until it gives birth to an organization of city-wide proletarian committees, elected directly by the masses. These committees, in the social crisis that is looming, can become the strongholds of the general interests of the entire working people. This real activity in the factories and villages will revive the trade union and give it back some content and effectiveness, if in parallel all the vanguard elements go back into the organization, for the struggle against the present reformist and maximalist leaders. Whoever keeps his distance from the trade unions today is an ally of the reformists, not a revolutionary militant. He will be able to produce anarchoid phrases, but he will not shift by a hair's-breadth the iron conditions in which the real struggle is going on.

The extent to which the party as a whole, in other words the entire mass of members, succeeds in fulfilling its essential task of winning the majority of workers and transforming in a molecular fashion the bases of the democratic State, will also be the extent to which we shall advance along the path of revolution, and will permit us to pass on to a subsequent phase of development. The whole party, in all its bodies, but especially through its press, must work in a united way to secure the maximum benefit from each comrade's work. Today, we are forming up for the general struggle against the fascist régime. We reply to the stupid campaigns of the opposition press by showing our real determination to overthrow, not merely the fascism of Mussolini and Farinacci, but also the semifascism of Amendola, Sturzo and Turati. To achieve this, it is necessary to reorganize the broad masses and become a great party: the only party in which the working population sees the expression of its political will; the citadel of its immediate and permanent historical interests.