Antonio Gramsci and José Carlos Mariátegui

Image: Mikhail Nilov


The approaches of the two thinkers on fascism

Antonio Gramsci and José Carlos Mariátegui never met, perhaps they were introduced, but there was no friendship or political or professional activity in common. Mariátegui was an avid reader of L'Ordine Nuovo and often reproduced the opinion of the weekly newspaper and Gramsci, in his articles addressed to Peruvian newspapers (PERICÁS, 2010 p 41). Both maintained dialogues with personalities of their time, such as Benedetto Croce, Piero Gobetti, George Sorel, Giovanni Amendola, among others, which demonstrates the atmosphere of political renewal at the time. I think it will be this atmosphere that will allow us to observe the similarities between the two approaches to fascism.

José Carlos Mariátegui arrived in Italy at the end of 1919 and remained there until 1923, during which time he was obliged, due to his political views, to be a cultural attaché at the Peruvian embassy in Italy. Mariátegui arrives in the middle of the Biennio Rosso, a moment in which the working and peasant classes had a spectacular rise, with strikes in factory and farm occupations for agrarian reform, a moment that was defined by the Group of L'Ordine Nuovo as a duality of power and revolutionary period.

The young Peruvian journalist and poet comes into intense contact with Italian culture and politics, seeking to understand society and life on-site visit. In this way, you will come into contact with the different schools of thought and their main protagonists, which is revealed in the articles sent to Lima newspapers. Thus, it seeks to show Peruvians the effervescence of Italy in the post-war period. His contact with the rising fascist movement would first occur through the action of Gabriele D’Annunzio in Fiume. It is known that Mariátegui was an admirer of the poet, which is possible to notice in his first approach to the Constitution of Fiume, called Carnaro Charter.

D’Annunzio is shown as a creative and innovative politician. Mariátegui believes that the Constituent Charter created by the warrior poet reflects an artistic innovation, guarantees rights to society and believes that craft corporations represent advances in labor relations. However, a little later, he changes his opinion because he understands the authoritarian and militaristic dimension of Fiume. He even realizes that the poet was more concerned with his own aesthetics than with politics. Later, he will point out that “D’ Annunzio is not a fascist, but fascism is Dannunzian” (MARIATEGUI, 2010, p. 291).

Antonio Gramsci will come across the Fiume issue, understanding it as one of the great manifestations of the loss of legitimacy of the Liberal State. It shows the risk of a fissure in the central authority that is disrespected by soldiers, by the State bureaucracy, by the command of the armed forces, by significant sectors of the ruling classes, putting the central authority in crisis. He agrees with Mariátegui about authoritarianism and the adventure of Fiume. He emphasizes that the bourgeoisie has its control over the national territory in check and sees D'Annunzio's gesture as the beginning of civil war: “The Fiume government opposed the central government, the armed discipline of the Fiume government counteracted legal discipline of the government of Rome (…) In Italy, as in all other countries, as in Russia, as in Bavaria, as in Hungary, it is the bourgeois class that triggers the civil war, that plunges the nation into disorder , in terror, in anarchy” (GRAMSCI, 1977, p. 36).

With the rise of the proletarian and peasant masses, the liberal bourgeois Italian State was forced to take several defensive actions and was, little by little, losing control over society. To avoid socialist revolution, the governments of the presidents of the Council of Ministers, Francesco Nitti and Giovanni Giolitti, had to make economic and political concessions that put them at odds with their own class and, at the same time, fostered an anarchic climate that allowed the action of paramilitary groups supporting State coercion. The advance of proletarian and peasant forces exhausted liberal institutions, leaving two possibilities open: either the reconstruction of the country through a socialist Revolution or restoration through a violent reaction.

During the period he lived in Italy, Mariátegui wrote four articles dealing specifically with Italian socialists (Italian socialist forces, The socialist schism, The socialist party and the Third International e Socialist politics in Italy). In the articles, he shows a tense and revolutionary situation, highlighting that the indecisions and internal disputes carried out between the main currents – maximalist, collaborationist and communist – created indecisions that blocked the capacity for action and fermented the schism. As an acute observer, he notices that action was limited and internal tensions prevented better performance, whether in parliament or outside it.

You will notice that the inhibition and fissure of the socialist forces left action open: The two wings are consistent with their respective assessments of the historical moment. The difference in these assessments is what separates them. It is logical that those who consider that it is time for revolution are opposed to socialism doing anything other than accelerating it. And it is logical that those who consider the opposite want socialism to cross its arms negatively in the face of current problems that do not affect one class, but all, mainly the working classes (MARIÁTEGUI, 2010, p. 70).

If Mariátegui's concern is that of a socialist journalist who was in his “privileged mezzanine”, Gramsci's is that of a leader who fought an important battle with the PSI so that it could behave at the height of the revolutionary group. O Biennio Rosso was marked by contradictions of major proportions on the international and national scene: major economic crisis, currency devaluation, inflation, loss of salary purchasing power, mass unemployment and increased exploitation of workers, which reached unsustainable levels, contributing to tensions social issues multiplied, with demonstrations, strikes and harsh peasant struggles.

Proletarian struggles took place throughout Italy, with economic strikes, strikes against repression, strikes to not transport weapons to the anti-Bolshevik white armies and the most important of all, the armed occupation of Turin's factories against the employers' lockout. Here the Factory Councils were born, which became a general tactic that spread across several production sectors. The Councils take over production, work discipline and armed surveillance of factories.

The movement was largely spontaneous and incorporated proletarian neighborhoods and workers' families. Liberal governments, in deep crisis, were unable to govern and, in turn, the working classes, increasingly confident in the material possibility of social transformation of society, spread the feeling of realizing history and socialism. From the perspective of the workers and their main leaders, if they were unable to achieve the revolution and socialism, a repression similar to that which had brought down the revolutions in Bavaria and Hungary would be repeated in Italy. Gramsci revealed his perception of this moment in an article published in L'Ordine Nuovo, on 08/05/1920: “The current phase of the class struggle, in Italy, is the following: either the conquest of political power, by the revolutionary proletariat, to change modes of production and distribution that allow a recovery of productivity; or a tremendous reaction on the part of the property class and the governing caste” (GRAMSCI, 1977, p.133).

To boost the socialist struggle, Gramsci believed that the council movement should overcome the condition of local representation of factories and become bodies of workers' self-government, with the election of representatives from all factories, thus constituting regional and national councils. For this movement to happen, the L'Ordine Nuovo it should overcome the distrust that existed in the PSI, which had been trapped for years in a bureaucratic logic of intermediation between capital and labor, as well as overcome the distrust of the unions.

While the Turin leadership highlighted the need for autonomy and self-government, the various factions of the PSI saw it as a spontaneous, anarchist, corporatist and disorganized movement and, therefore, demanded the subordination of the councils to the unions and the PSI.

 Gianni Fressu draws attention to the fact that the L'Ordine Nuovo having assumed an innovative role as a workers' press. The periodical translated articles by different authors, then unknown in Italy, such as Lukács, Zinoviev, Daniel de Leon, among many others and, therefore, related better and creatively with the various workers' experiences that were taking place, such as the workers' councils in Germany (FRESSU , 2020 p 87). This can be seen in this comparison made by Gramsci: “The essential nature of the union is competition, it is not communism. The union cannot be an instrument of radical renewal of society and: it can offer the proletariat experienced bureaucrats, technical specialists in general industrial issues, it cannot be the basis of proletarian power”. (GRAMSCI, 1977, p 43).

The central attempt consisted of politically guiding the masses and leading them to the revolution. Gramsci concludes, making a self-criticism, that the L'Ordine Nuovo and the socialist leadership of Turin sinned through ingenuity and youth by not constituting a national faction for this purpose, in addition to not building a center of urban leadership in Turin and Piedmont (Gramsci in L’Ordine Nuovo Crinache).

Faced with the proletarian peasant uprising, the national leadership of the PSI and the unions had to opt for an economic agreement with the Giolitti government. This brought great economic gains to the working class, but led to disillusionment with the socialist struggle and the PSI, leading to a decline in mass activity and their departure from the Party. Gramsci, in an article dated July 10, 1920, comments that the PSI was losing control over the working masses, leaving them aimless and “these without guidance, will be thrown, by the unfolding of events, into a situation worse than the ones proletarian masses of Austria and Germany” (GRAMSCI, 1977, p. 169).

A few months later, already judging the situation to be irremediable, he declared: “Communists are and must be cold and calm thinkers: if everything is in ruin, it is necessary to redo everything, it is necessary to redo the Party, it is necessary, from today onwards, to consider and arm the communist faction as a true and proper party, like the solid structure of the Italian Communist Party that calls followers, organizes them solidly, educates them, makes them active cells of the new organism that develops and develops until it becomes the entire working class, until it became the soul and will of the entire working people (GRAMSCI, 1977, p. 233).

Once a significant driving force in the Italian nation, the PSI has become a parliamentary party tied to and limited to the country's liberal institutions. At that moment, the conditions for the break with the PSI and the founding of the Communist Party were more than ripe and the Livorno congress, in January 1921, sealed this fate. The crisis of the socialist movement contributed significantly to the advancement of the reaction, enabling the transition from a revolutionary position to civil war. The conflict gained strength first in the countryside, through financing from the General Confederation of Agriculture, and then in the cities, with financing from the General Confederation of Industry, both created in 1920.

Mariátegui emphasizes that the Nitti governments and Giolitti they faced a correlation of forces that made it impossible for them to present a repressive policy at that moment. At that juncture, the maintenance and conservation of bourgeois society was essential. This implied making concessions to socialists and workers as a measure to gain momentum for the reorganization of the State (MARIÁTEGUI, 2010, p. 102). At another point, he observes that after the retreats “The bourgeois classes take advantage of the ‘fascist’ phenomenon to come out against the revolution. (… The conservative forces are certain of definitively frustrating the revolution, attacking it before it sets out to conquer political power” (MARIÁTEGUI, 2010, p. 148).

The young poet understood fascism as a movement of conservative social classes that wanted to maintain the capitalist State. They acted illegally aiming to preserve themselves against the socialist currents, which sought to destroy them. He understood that fascism “was not a party; it is a counter-revolutionary army, mobilized against the proletarian revolution, in a moment of fever and bellicosity, by the various conservative groups and classes” (MARIÁTEGUI 2010, p. 179).

In turn, Gramsci emphasizes that the reaction process would be intrinsically linked to the development of Italian capitalism itself, incapable of establishing a stable and uniform liberal regime. The liberals' incompetence solidified into a corrupt and autocratic state that essentially created the basis for questioning itself: “The Italian state, through the examination of war, finally revealed its innermost essence: the Polichinello State, and the domain of arbitrariness, whim, irresponsibility, immanent disorder, increasingly generating asphyxiating disorders” (GRAMSCI, 1976, p 301). This disorganized and anarchic essence reflects a backward model, where there is no developed national bourgeoisie, with a clear and lucid country project, with ideas and ideals spread throughout society. Gramsci notes that relationships occur between small interests and local groups, consolidating a gap between reality and the bourgeois vocation of the State.

This process was laid bare by the end of the First World War, which brought to light the social, political and economic disorganization of the Italian liberal State. The restlessness of the middle classes, concerned about their proletarianization, began to show strength even before the fascist rise, at the end of 1919, in an attack by the nationalist-monarchist petty bourgeoisie against socialist deputies. Gramsci realizes that the small and medium bourgeoisie could be used by capitalists as a support to confront the workers.

He notes that during the war the middle layers were placed in control of the state and that war demobilization was leaving them without their pay and salary. status they had before: “The war highlighted the petty and middle bourgeoisie. In war and through war, the capitalist apparatus of economic and political government was militarized: the factory became a barracks, the city became a barracks, the nation became a barracks. All activities of general interest were nationalized, bureaucratized and militarized. To activate this monstrous construction, the State and smaller capitalist associations carried out a mass mobilization of the small and medium bourgeoisie”. (GRAMSCI, 1976, p. 85).

In the same way, Gramsci observes that the State's bureaucratic apparatus was undergoing changes and the small and middle bourgeois classes, which exercised their control, found themselves threatened by the proletarian and peasant rise. In his analysis, the petty bourgeoisie had lost all its importance in the productive sector, specializing as a political class in parliamentary cretinism. The reaction to the proletarian rise and its adherence to fascism were a manifestation of its interests linked to the interests of big capital. (GRAMSCI, 1976, p. 236).

Furthermore, the middle classes promised to carry out a revolution as an alternative to socialism and capitalism. However, Gramsci sees that, in fact, his harmful action in relation to the liberal State and its institutions aims, ultimately, at its preservation. He also highlights that the ruling classes made a historic mistake by giving up their State and its institutions, by following the leadership of the petty bourgeoisie (GRAMSCI, 1976, p. 237).

Gramsci understood that, in the post-war period, capitalism entered into crisis at an international level, leading to an interruption of the productive forces and making the State incapable of dominating them. In this scenario, the fascist movement and the middle classes emerge as a violent interpretation and solution to the crisis. Gramsci points out: “What is fascism, seen on an international scale? It is an attempt to solve the problems of production and exchange through machine gun fire and pistol shots.” (GRAMSCI, Italy and Spain).

Fascism therefore acted on a national scale, trying to solve society's historical problems through violence. It was, at the same time, a way for the petty bourgeoisie to remain active on the political scene. Gramsci had already observed, in his critique of Enrico Corradini's nationalism, the danger represented by a national ideal that overlapped the reality of social classes and the interests of all. Because, in truth, this was the interest of big capital. He recalls that the idea of ​​a proletarian nation that would face decrepit imperialist nations, would assert itself through market conquests and war and with the sacrifice of the blood and well-being of the proletarians. (GRAMSCI, 1977 p. 91).

Mariátegui, in turn, committed to understanding the logic of fascism, observes the absence of a program in the words of the fascist leaders. The ideas of fascist leaders are a set of opinions that are composed as something mystical, with the intention of formulating a collective entity above classes, groups and individuals: the nation. The national interest would be above all. Likewise, the fascists believed that foreign policy would be the extension of national vocations along the lines of empires, as, not without reason, they borrowed the Roman greetings used by D’Annunzio, in Fiume.

Fascism also reacted to the defeatist foreign policy formulated by liberal governments. Its objective was supposedly to rescue tarnished Italian pride and rehabilitate the morale of the soldier who fought in the Great War and who, at the time, felt humiliated. The violence of fascism was seen as a response to the totalitarian violence of the Bolsheviks. In this way, while socialists acted in the name of a class and its interests, fascists claimed to act in the name of the entire nation. In their rhetoric, they fought against everyone who sided with speculation, usury, profit without work and/or the particular interest of a single class. In Mussolini's theatrical and skillful actions and in the strengths of his speeches and articles, published in Il Popolo d'Italia, the confused fascist discourse creates a feeling capable of mobilizing sectors dissatisfied with liberalism and the socialist action of proletarians and peasants.

Fascist methods are highlighted by Mariátegui as intimidation and violence through torture against left-wing and liberal opponents. In this sense, the cases of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, killed by the phalanges, and the liberals Piero Gobetti and Benedetto Croce are emblematic. Likewise, he did not believe in the faith of Giovanni Giolitti, in the transformative tradition of Italian politics, nor that fascists would adapt to the liberal parliamentary environment.

Mariátegui believed that the socialists' lack of definition – sometimes believing in parliament, sometimes boycotting the legislative chamber as a counterpoint to Mussolini – would strengthen the dictatorship. He realized that this was an international movement of capital; it was not just an exception, but the statement of a reaction to the Russian Revolution and the threat of socialist revolution in Italy. Mariátegui's sympathy for the Third International is clear: he saw the PCI's line of action as a real possibility of fighting fascism. At the same time, he highlighted that the uncertainties of the socialist movement resulted from the adaptation of the PSI to the limits of the bourgeois parliamentary state. José Carlos Mariátegui makes it clear that the spirit of the reaction was not the affirmation of the new, of a revolution, but the embedded defense of the bourgeois order and capitalism. The spirit of capitalism and its values ​​was the true polychromic component of the fascist religion, as he reminds us when he narrates the financing of the bourgeois classes for the movement.

Gramsci, on the other hand, observes that the phenomenon of the rise of the communist movement and Revolution is a sign of the international renewal of society; and, in turn, the bourgeois reaction presents itself as the restoration of the State, with the intention of establishing new ways of functioning in society. In this way, the dominant classes would be reorganizing the State, with the aim of making it more resistant to the manifestations of the working and peasant classes. The restored state would impose new limits on workers and other subaltern classes, as a means of preventing the processes of organization, awareness and mobilization of the proletariat for it. “Fascism is the illegality of capitalist violence, while the restoration of the State is the legalization of this violence.”

Mariátegui reaches a similar conclusion: the reaction to the Russian Revolution would be an international phenomenon and mobilizes all the efforts of the bourgeoisie and reactionary sectors of society. For him, fascism is “an anti-revolutionary civil militia. It no longer just represents the feeling of victory. It is no longer exclusively an extension of the warlike fervor of war. Now, it means an offensive by the bourgeois classes against the rise of the proletarian classes” (MARIÁTEGUI 2010, p. 148).

Both Gramsci and Mariátegui note that the Fascist Party's program is not a doctrinal body, a political proposal. Both understand that fascist ideas are better represented in other conservative parties and their action focuses mainly on blind violence:

There is no fascist party that changes quantity in quality, that is an apparatus for the political selection of a class or a group: there is only an undifferentiated and indifferentiable mechanical aggregate from the point of view of intellectual and political capacities, that lives only because it has conquered in the civil war, a very strong esprit de corps, roughly identified with the national ideology. Outside the field of military organization, fascism gave nothing, and even in this field what it can give is very relative (GRAMSCI, 1979, p. 129).

Gramsci even made an inventory of the fascists' crimes, concluding that such actions remained unpunished due to the connivance of the state apparatus, the enticement of the bureaucracy and the sympathy and tacit support expressed by the military command (Gramsci, 1977, p. 335). Likewise, Mariátegui identifies the complicity of the State and liberals, who capitulated in the face of fascism and its violence (MARIÁTEGUI, 2010, p. 199).

After the March on Rome, the fascists come to power, with Mussolini being sworn in by King Victor Emanuele III as president of the ministerial council. For Gramsci, this event meant the victory of large landowners over the peasantry and the proletariat, with the bourgeoisie second in command of the State, due to the financial and industrial crisis. The government will be the responsibility of the petty bourgeoisie, who, “even for the bourgeoisie, will find it difficult to accept the harsh and tyrannical domination of the landowners and the irresponsible demagoguery of a mediocre adventurer like Mussolini.” (GRAMSCI, The fascist march on Rome). Gramsci understands that this will be a time of tough struggles for workers and the PCI; he recommends the party go underground and concentrate on conspiratorial action.

After a short period of attempted parliamentary government, fascist violence returned to the surface, with the main result being the murder of socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, who had become famous for denouncing the electoral and economic corruption of the Mussolini government. The parliamentarian's death triggered an immense wave of revolt and protest against the fascists. The parliamentarians withdrew from the chamber and founded the Aventino bloc. For six months, the fascist government was on the verge of being overthrown. Mariátegui says that the “capitulation of liberalism and democracy before fascism” was complete. The Peruvian journalist remembers that fascism was armed and financed by the bourgeoisie, and that the press acted in its favor. Furthermore, the State tolerated violence. The March on Rome suffered little opposition and when Mussolini was armed and strong, the bourgeoisie granted him the government (MARIÁTEGUI 2010, p. 217).

With the murder of Matteotti the situation changed, the social outcry made liberalism go in opposition to fascism. For Mariátegui, the criminal act against Matteotti is equivalent to the March on Rome. What changed from one moment to another was the feeling among the bourgeoisie that the liberal State was more suitable for capitalist development than the proposal of a Fascist State, with a hierarchy and leaders that resembled those of the Middle Ages (MARIÁTEGUI 2010, p. 222).

Gramsci comments that the Mussolini government does not have the moral authority to handle the Matteotti case. The fall of the government was necessary for there to be a fair trial; but how to take it down? This is the central question. After all, fascism was encouraged and organized by the bourgeoisie as a means of stopping proletarian action. The bourgeoisie sought to stabilize the fascist government. Gramsci shows that fascism has its own logic and internal interests, that the control of the ruling classes over fascism is contradictory. “Furthermore, it is nothing more than the expression and direct consequence of the tendency of fascism not to present itself as a simple instrument of the bourgeoisie, but to proceed, in the series of oppressions, violence, crimes, according to its internal logic, which ends up not taking into account the conservation of the current regime” (GRAMSCI, 1978, p. 139).

Mariátegui emphasizes that the absence of a minimum program among the opposing parties of the Aventine bloc allowed the initiative of Mussolini and the fascists to resume. Shortly after the deputies returned to parliament, the fascist dictatorship was established with the arrest of then deputy Antonio Gramsci. Mariátegui was mistaken in believing that the fascist dictatorship would be a parliamentary dictatorship, like others that had already existed in the history of Italy.

After the Congress held in France in 1926, Gramsci and the PCI began to argue that fascism was a way of resolving the crisis of hegemony that opened with the Russian Revolution and the end of the Great War. This means that fascism was a movement capable of dismantling the left and, at the same time, re-updating the State apparatus. (GRAMSCI, 1978 p 219.)

Arrested, the then deputy Gramsci, continues his analyzes in his prison notebooks, seeking to understand the phenomenon of fascism, using concepts such as crisis of hegemony, organic crisis, Caesarism, war of movement/war of position and passive revolution.

*John Kennedy Ferreira Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA).


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