If chasing the ghosts of cantankerous philosophers was an Olympic sport, I’d be a gold medalist. Sometimes an intellectual heavyweight appears on your path more than once until it becomes impossible not to take notice. I’ve run into Antonio “Nino” Gramsci many times, but it is easier to move from Marx to the manifestation of the totalitarian brand of communism without the complication of this little Italian firecracker in the narrative. He is a bit complex for students in Western Civilization because they are armed with too little background knowledge to understand the philosophical nuances in Italy between the wars. He is easy to skip, especially as the final exam looms and the Cold War drum calls. Also, Gramsci has one of those lives of extreme misfortune that just makes you want to hang your head and feel badly that you ever complained, about anything. Ever.
Gramsci is Sardinian Tough
Gramsci was forged in fire. He was born on the island of Sardinia in 1891, and his childhood was more than a little bit feral. His father was jailed when he was 6 years old for supposed administrative abuses. Gramsci and his 6 siblings were raised in extreme poverty. He was very sickly due to Pott disease (which is a disfiguring and painful tuberculosis of the spine). Can you imagine living in a house along with a child-sized coffin that your mother bought when you were on death’s door but you bounced back? These formative years, what Gramsci would go on to call the “sewer of his past”, shaped his political lens. His worldview was built on the foundation of seeing the peasants of Sardinia getting treated like garbage by more well-off mainland Italians who saw the islanders as barbarians. Being from the east end of Long Island and watching the line of sports cars streaming in from Manhattan every summer to plunder my hometown, I commiserate with Gramsci’s distaste. At the turn of the 20th century, Italy treated Sardinia like a colony and unapologetically stripped it of all of its resources. This lit a fire in Gramsci’s belly and his first, idealistic, political views focused on Sardinian independence.
Despite having to leave school at the age of 11 to work to feed his family, Gramsci was recognized for having intellectual gifts. He was able to return to finish his secondary schooling and he, based on academic merit, won a need-based scholarship to the University of Turin. There, he eagerly enrolled in humanities and social sciences courses. He befriended his Dante professor Umberto Cosmo. Gramsci was recognized by Cosmo for his linguistic skills. Gramsci could certainly slam dunk complex ideas with his words and it was assumed that he would be an academic. But he did not. He wanted to be at the front of the revolution, not behind a desk.
Out of the Pan and into the Fire at the University of Turin
At the University of Turin that he got involved with the PSI (the Italian Socialist Party). They were groupies of Lenin watching the Bolshevik Revolution unfold in Russia. Gramsci came to the realization that socialists working inside a capitalist system and trying to reform that system would not work. Deeply influenced by Marx, he edited the Avanti journal and spoke to the rallying workers of the city encouraging radical demands. At Fiat, he fired-up the workers and encouraged them to shut down their assembly lines. Not only did he watch communism in Russia carefully, but he also caught sight of a Russian violinist named Jolka Schucht while he was a patient in a sanitarium after being ill during a trip to Moscow. There is a good argument that it might be better to pick up someone in a sanitarium than on Tinder. And while he was described by others in the hospital as a raving savage, she found him endearing enough to marry. Karl Marx was their love language.
Turin was my first real run in with Gramsci. I was in town for a film festival fueled by hipsters eating poke bowls and lounging in trendy coffee bars. When Gramsci arrived in Turin, it was a different city and more like going into the industrial fire of late 19th century Manchester. Under the soot filled sky, it was a ready stage for the workers to launch their revolutions. In Turin today, Gramsci is publicly commemorated on a plaque affixed to the Amex Platinum level rather posh NH Carlina Hotel. He would have hated absolutely everything about it. He had lived in that building as a student at the University of Turin where, on a pathetic stipend, he often went hungry and struggled in the long winters without heat. A call to remember him there almost seems to mock him. I was almost glad to slink back to my budget hotel just beyond the mouth of the train station. Almost.
That wouldn’t be my last chance encounter Gramsci. He didn’t complete his studies at the University of Turin, but he rode the wave of his notoriety into Italian parliament. He was jailed by Mussolini’s Fascist Party in 1926 because he was the head of the Italian Communist Party. He was released, on death’s door, in 1934 after signing a statement that he would stop his political activity. He never recovered. Gramsci died in Rome of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1937. By that time, Italy was lurching toward WWII and Gramsci’s death was little noticed.
Passing through Formia
Before being transferred to a hospital in Rome, he passed through a clinic in Formia. At least this is what I noticed on a stone plaque next to an impossibly crisp and vibrantly green commemorative wreath placed that day (April 27) to commemorate his death. It was happenstance that I was there that day, but without the fresh wreath as a signpost, one most likely would just pass by the non-descript building on the heavily trafficked road heading toward Minturno. Living nearby, I was enticed down the less than pedestrian friendly road by the promise of seeing the ruins of a Roman port. But I never made it. The sweltering summer heat had settled into a heavy gray sky and it had started to pour. The bus never came and the long walk back to Formia felt like a forced march under Niagara falls. Every time I almost got run over by a Fiat pushing a wall of water in its path, I thought about Gramsci’s speeches pouring rhetorical lighter fluid on the striking workers at the factory in Turin. Fitting.
Eternal Rest among the Cat Gangs of Rome
If Gramsci wanted to be seen this badly, a trip to the cemetery in Rome seemed in order. He is buried in Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery. Among foreigners, Gramsci seems at home in a humble spot out of view from the pyramid and the brash Romantic poets. It felt a bit out of sight, out of mind as the tourists stereotypically flocked to find Shelly, a more palatable author who offered passionate Instagram worthy hashtags. Despite a well-staffed central office to welcome visitors, the cemetery is clearly controlled by the cats who behave like they know it. Cats are protected in Rome, and they can’t be harmed or moved. A large calico, paying no mind to the location of his marbled-rear, had perched on Gramsci’s headstone. Gramsci’s grave might be a cat bathhouse, but thankfully here one is spared the enormous and brash bronze bust that marks Marx’s grave at Highgate cemetery in London with about as much dignity as if they had installed an inflatable tube-man.
Speaking of tube-men, Gramsci does not have the historical whirlwind around him that Marx does. Gramsci’s work became more well-known after the dust had settled on the end of WWII. It was what he wrote during his incarceration, the Prison Notebooks, that would prove to be his magnum opus. The fascist jails were full of intellectual heavyweights with nothing but time to write. Mussolini tryed to shut them down, but they turned their cells into think tanks and it had the opposite effect of silencing them.
A Martyr for the Cause
In Prison Notebooks, unlike Marx, it is clear that Gramsci was interested in how culture influenced political and economic systems. Gramsci argued that governments play up cultural hegemony (leadership) to keep the revolution at bay. This was done in an effort to convinece the workers that we are all the same. So don’t rock the boat, even if you are suffering. Gramsci’s belief that intellectuals would rise organically in all social classes (not just among the traditional intellectuals with privileged social standing) appealed to the post war liberal mindset. It’s not surprising that Gramsci found a ready home in the student driven protests of the 1960s.
The tragic irony of this all is that I am drinking an Americano out of an overprice souvenir coffee mug from a Starbucks in Turin. The vat of a mug, offers a 360-degree cartoonish city skyline of Turin straight out of a factory in China. In the wake of Gramsci’s suffering, I’m truly embarrassed by this unabashed display of capitalism. Although I am of the mind that for Gramsci to reach his true intellection potential, he needed to be pissed off. Sorry not sorry, Nino.
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