Did Antonio Gramsci have second thoughts?

Did Antonio Gramsci have second thoughts?

Babette Francis

The Vatican has revealed that Antonio Gramsci, the founder of Italian Communism and an icon of the Left, reverted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed.

Archbishop Luigi De Magistris, former head of the Apostolic Penitentiary of the Holy See, which deals with confessions, indulgences and the forgiveness of sins, said Gramsci had 'died taking the Sacraments.' He had asked the nuns attending him in hospital to let him kiss an image of the infant Jesus, the Archbishop said.

Rumours that Gramsci had converted back to his Roman Catholic faith had never until now been confirmed, and the Italian Left had also remained silent on the issue. 'But that is how it was', Archbishop De Magistris told Vatican Radio in November 2008: 'Gramsci returned to the faith of his infancy.'

Marxist thinker

Antonio Gramsci, who was born in Sardinia in 1891, won a scholarship in 1911 to study at the University of Turin, a city dominated by Fiat factories where trade unions were emerging. He became a Marxist journalist, supporting workers' councils which sprang up in Turin during the strikes of 1919 and 1920.

He played a leading role in founding the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) in 1921, became its leader, and after visiting Moscow several times sought to form a united front of leftist parties against Fascism. He was arrested by the Fascist police in 1926 and put in prison, where his already poor health deteriorated. He died in Rome in 1937 at the age of 46, shortly after being released, and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery.

Gramsci is regarded as one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the 20th century. His thought is crystallised in the Prison Notebooks, in which, among other things, he argued that capitalism was based on a combination of force and consensus, and that Marxism could only supersede religion if it met people's spiritual as well as material needs.

While communist theorists had always focused on class struggle as the road to successful revolution, Gramsci emphasised the need to take into account popular demands, which do not have a purely class character. He urged his fellow revolutionaries to seek the intellectual and moral reform of the people.

Gramsci contended that more than the acquisition of state power was needed for a successful conversion to socialism. He exhorted his comrades to gain control of civil society, which he defined as the historical traditions and social movements of a nation - the churches, political parties, trade unions, mass media, and various voluntary associations. I would add to this list the universities. His strategy was what Bob Santamaria described as 'the successful march through the institutions'.

It was a brilliant strategy. Rather than tearing down institutions Gramsci sought to subvert them so that people did not quite realise that the values of the institutions had changed. Detaching people from their society's time-honoured values and traditions leaves them rootless pawns in the revolutionary game, unable and unwilling to defend what they have been led to abandon, or what was taken away.

Although the nuclear threat from the former Soviet Union isn't the concern it once was, the culture war being waged against the very foundations of Western democracies is becoming more obvious all the time. The ubiquitous assault upon our moral and cultural underpinnings strikes at the very core of our civilisation and mirrors the strategy developed so many years ago by Antonio Gramsci.

One notable apostle of the Gramsci strategy is Mikhail Gorbachev, whose Gorbachev Foundation has been influencing the American elite. In a speech in July 1990 at the Communist Party Congress, Gorbachev admitted that he intended to work for a world socialist government 'not by giving orders, but influencing people's minds.'

One popular method of reaching that goal is the substitution of environmentalism for religion and the Gorbachev Foundation has a heavy emphasis on environmentalism.

Sociologist Peter Berger referred to community institutions as 'mediating structures' between the individual and the government, in the sense that these structures could be a kind of protection for those at risk of being overwhelmed by government - which can happen even in democracies. But what if the mediating structures themselves are subverted? This is happening with 'political correctness' going to farcical lengths.

Last rites

Consider this example from Canada where the Carleton University Students' Association voted to drop a cystic fibrosis charity as the beneficiary of its annual 'Shinearama' fundraiser, supporting a motion that argued the disease is not 'inclusive' enough. Cystic fibrosis 'has been recently revealed to only affect white people, and primarily men' said the motion read to student councillors, who voted almost unanimously in favour of it.

As a microbiologist I know the gene for cystic fibrosis is recessive, so it should affect men and women equally. But who cares about science if white males can be put in their place?

As a white male himself, even Gramsci might have drawn the line at such lunacy. He was released from prison in 1933 because of poor health, spending several years in various clinics prior to his death in Rome.

Beginning in 1948, six volumes of Prison Notebooks were published and, later, many of his letters were collected and also published.

In his own way I think Gramsci was something of an idealist, and I am glad that at the end he was comforted by the last rites of the Catholic Church.

Babette Francis is National and Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc.

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