A Newly Rediscovered Article by Antonio Gramsci on the Fascists’ March on Rome

When Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascists pulled off their coup d’état in October 1922, Antonio Gramsci was in Moscow — and his first article responding to the events appeared in Russian. It was virtually lost for a century. We publish it in English for the first time.

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci was in Petrograd for the fifth anniversary celebrations of the Russian Revolution, and first commented on the rise of fascism in Italy from Soviet Russia. (Laski Diffusion / Getty Images)

Article from Pravda, November 7, 1922:

The Fascists’ seizure of power reduces the Italian Communist Party’s activity to that of a purely conspiratorial movement. In Italy, a new period of history is beginning, which we can define in the following terms: Political power is probably passing from the hands of the capitalist bourgeoisie into the hands of the middling and big agrarian strata, under the ideological guidance of part of the urban petty bourgeoisie. The contradictions of Italian society, which had been latent since the creation of the unitary Kingdom which emerged from the wars for Italian reconstruction, became clearly manifest in these last two years, after the Socialist Party proved incapable of leading the proletariat to power.

The result has been the agrarian landowners’ victory over the proletariat and over the bourgeoisie, which has been enfeebled by the financial and industrial crisis. One can easily foresee an imminent period of fierce struggle in Italy, since even for the bourgeoisie it will be difficult to accept harsh, tyrannical domination by the landowners and the irresponsible demagogy of a mediocre adventurer like Mussolini. So, despite the gravity of the present situation, the future prospects for the proletariat and its party are not particularly negative. Over the last two years, the Communist Party has already found itself in a situation of illegality across three-quarters of the country. Despite this, the party, which counted 42,000 members in February 1921 after the split at the Livorno Congress, still had 35,000 members at the moment of the Fascist coup d’état, not including the around 20,000 young communists. The Socialist Party, which had 150,000 members after Livorno, has in the same period fallen to 32,000 members. They have resolved to join the Comintern, but in truth they are not sufficiently prepared for a situation of illegality.

If in this new phase the Communist Party’s Central Committee proves capable (as it probably will, taking into account the experience of the international communist movement) of developing a tactic adequate to the reality of Italian society and driving open the contradictions created by the Fascist coup d’état, the proletariat will, soon enough, again occupy its historic position, lost after the failure of the factory-occupation campaign in September 1920.

Gramsci (Italy)

Gramsci, the Communist Party and the March on Rome

In November 1922, Gramsci was in Soviet Russia, where he had arrived in early June together with Amadeo Bordiga and Antonio Graziadei in order to take part in the Communist International’s Second Enlarged Executive plenum. He remained in Moscow as the PCd’I representative to the Executive and the Presidium of the Comintern, which the Communists of the time saw as a truly world party made up of “national sections.”

Upon setting off back to Italy, Bordiga had lumbered Gramsci with a thankless task. He wanted the Sardinian communist to convince the International to accept that the PCd’I — dominated by Bordiga’s vigorous personality — could maintain its own position distinct from the “united front” policy which had been decided at the Comintern Third Congress (1921) and its successive leadership bodies’ meetings.

Gramsci was meant to return to Italy in early 1923, after taking part in the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, which began in Petrograd on November 5, 1922. The city which had five years earlier been the cradle of the revolution was the scene of great celebrations, crowded rallies and street parades in these days; then, from November 9 to December 5, the Congress’s work moved to Moscow. A warrant for Gramsci’s arrest, issued in Italy, would however delay his return; he came back only in 1924, after his election as an MP granted him parliamentary immunity.

Gramsci in Russia

From June 1922, Gramsci had been involved in various activities of the Comintern and even the Russian Communist Party, in Moscow and other cities. His health conditions soon worsened, and he spent a first rest stay in the Serebranyi Bor (silver wood) sanatorium, close to Moscow, where he shared a cottage with Clara Zetkin. But he did not entirely break off his political activities.

In mid-October, Gramsci got back to work, as the Fourth Congress approached. On October 25 he was received by Lenin, himself already ill. The meeting lasted for two hours; Camilla Ravera discussed it at length in a December 1972 letter to Giuliano Gramsci, published only forty years later in a book by Giuliano’s son, himself called Antonio.

Ravera, a close friend of Gramsci from his Turin years and a front-rank PCd’I leader, was a delegate to the Fourth Congress but had arrived early for a communist women’s meeting. In Moscow, she spoke to Gramsci on delicate matters, including the meeting with Lenin. However, she did not mention the meeting in her early 1970s autobiography, even though she does talk at length about her stay in Moscow and her exchanges with her old friend from the Ordine Nuovo years. Bordiga came to Moscow a few days after Ravera and was himself received by Lenin; he wanted Ravera to accompany him.

Neither Gramsci nor the other main figures ever wrote about the Lenin-Gramsci meeting — either in 1922, or in the 1923–24 correspondence between Gramsci and other (mainly ex-Ordine Nuovo) cadres forming a new PCd’I leadership group, or in the struggles to establish the new Comintern-backed Gramscian leadership in 1925–26.

Ravera’s memories and assessments in the 1972 letter, which long remained private, are certainly of interest (although they should also be treated with caution, given the time that had passed since). Here, Ravera recalls Gramsci’s concern over Bordiga’s disagreements with the International, adding that Gramsci had told Lenin of his disagreement with Bordiga on various questions, including the analysis of Fascism. Ravera writes of Bordiga’s arrival with news of the “March on Rome”:

Interrupting these discussions between Gramsci and me was the news arriving in Moscow of the so-called “March on Rome” and the government Mussolini had established in Italy; and Bordiga arrived in Moscow bringing a direct testimony of what had happened. These events became the subject of all our discussions. Here, the insuperable difference between the political thinking of Gramsci and of Bordiga became manifest. Bordiga underestimated the consequences of the Fascists’ rise to power; he foresaw the possibility of the new government converging with social democracy and limited himself to reasserting the schematic, undifferentiated counterposition between bourgeois state and proletarian state.

Gramsci’s Analysis of Fascism in 1920–21

It’s well-known that Gramsci was an attentive observer and analyst of the fascist movement from its first appearance at the beginning of the 1920s. First of all, in the document “For a Renewal of the Socialist Party” (explicitly praised by Lenin during the International’s Second Congress in 1920), he had written:

The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is the phase that precedes: either the conquest of political power by the revolutionary proletariat, through the transition to new modes of production and distribution that allow a recovery in productivity, or else to a tremendous reaction by the propertied class and the governing caste. All kinds of violence will be used to subject the industrial and agricultural proletariat to servile labor; the attempt will be made to inexorably break the working class’s organizations for political struggle (Socialist Party) and incorporate the organizations of economic resistance (the unions and cooperatives) into the mechanisms of the bourgeois State.

Over the following months, Gramsci kept a close eye on fascism, analyzing it in real time (a very difficult thing to do) in l’Ordine Nuovo. Alongside judgements which inevitably proved mistaken, he formulated some definitions that became classics. Without doubt, he had a radically negative view of Italy’s liberal Giolittian democracy (so named after longtime liberal prime minister Giovanni Giolitti); this sometimes led to an underestimation of the fascist phenomenon, which only seemed confirmed by the initial pact between Giolitti and the “adventurer” Mussolini. The Fasci italiani di combattimento — we ought not forget — were integrated into the National Blocs (i.e. the electoral coalition put forward by Giolitti upon the 1921 elections).

Even so, Gramsci did grasp the novel aspects of fascism. He set out a class-based — and thus Marxist — analysis of this phenomenon, albeit in a way that sought to highlight its peculiarities rather than fall into an economistic, reductive outlook. He cited Rudyard Kipling’s “ape people” to point to the role of the “urban petty bourgeoisie” whose “process of splitting” had already set underway “in the final decade of the last century.”

Through this, the petty bourgeoisie had gradually “lost any importance and given up any vital function in the field of production, with the development of large industry and financial capital”; eventually it “aped the working class, and took to the streets.” The demobilization of army officers had served to create the cadres of this “revolt,” directing it toward the “direct defense of industrial and agricultural property from the assaults of the revolutionary class of workers and poor peasants.”

But the growing strength of fascist squadrism (its violent street movement) above all owed to the “landowners’ need to create a White [i.e. counterrevolutionary] guard for themselves.” Gramsci attentively analyzed the contradiction between fascism in the cities and the countryside, which exploded with the “Pacification Pact” Mussolini arranged with the Socialists in summer 1921 (outwardly aimed at disarming both sides).

Certainly, he was mistaken to predict that “fascism will emerge from this crisis through a split.” But he aptly observed that “the real fascism” was the one already known to the “peasants . . . and workers of Emilia, Veneto and Tuscany” — i.e. the most violent fascism, destined to go on at any cost — “even perhaps changing its name” (though there would be no need for this).

So, when the “March on Rome” came on October 28–30, 1922, Gramsci had already for some time been developing his own idea of fascism, even if this idea was evolving and provisional. He neither underestimated nor simplified this phenomenon. Yet, the “March on Rome” and the appointment of Mussolini to form a new government demanded his analysis be updated.

The Special Issue of Pravda

So, let’s turn to the short article Natalya Terekhova identified — presented for the first time in Italian in the latest issue of Critica Marxista — and the context of its original publication. It appeared in Pravda, organ of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee and Moscow Committee, on November 7, 1922. This is itself remarkable considering both the content of this article and the particular character of this day’s edition, appearing on the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution.

From the first page this is a clearly celebratory issue, with a brief greeting message by Lenin set next to the slogans of the moment, whose bold letters said (or rather, proclaimed): “Long Live the Headquarters of the International October, the Fourth Congress of the Communist International!” and “We Salute the Working-Class West: For You Hold Up the Workers’ Republic of Russia!” Standing out from the center of the page is an imposing graphic, representing a fist whose great strength smashes an aggressor’s weapons.

The second page relates the chronology of the victories for Soviet power since November 1917. The middle of the page is filled with news from abroad, including “The Class Struggle in Poland” and “Fascists in Power” in Italy. This latter piece reproduces dry communiqués from French and German press agencies on Mussolini’s first diplomatic moves, on the Catholic Popular Party, and a few other things. But no assessment is offered of the newly established Italian government. The whole bottom section of the page is dedicated to the Red Army’s military operations from 1919 to 1922, under the huge header “Fire—Blood—Victory!”

The following page, headed “We Guide the International Proletariat,” featured writings from leading figures in the Bolshevik leadership group. Grigory Zinoviev put his name to an article asserting that “the immortal character of the Russian Revolution owes to its being the beginning of the world revolution.”

Nikolai Bukharin emphasized the Bolshevik party’s role in the victorious Revolution, which might seem like “a miracle.” According to the Bolshevik theorist, it was nonetheless easily explained: this “miracle took place thanks to the Marxist preparation of the party, which was able to hold firm to [this Marxism], not in a dead and dogmatic way.” Bukharin continued: “Our Marxism was always the living weapon of praxis. This living revolutionary Marxism is a Marxism that truly helps make miracles happen. From this derives the great suppleness of our praxis.”

The fifth page is dedicated to the problems of the scientific organization of work. We know of the Bolsheviks’ great interest in the Taylor method as applied by the US industrialist Henry Ford. A Soviet book dedicated to this theme had been issued five times in three years, and even Ford’s memoir was immediately translated and printed in thousands of copies twice in succession. There was widespread propaganda for the Fordist method in the land of the soviets.

The subsequent pages featured articles mocking the Mensheviks, and poetry by the most famous poet of the time, Demyan Bedny (a pseudonym meaning “poor man” in Russian) as well as news on the defeats the “bourgeoisie” had suffered in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Gramsci’s article was on page eight. Striking, in a communist paper, was the thick advertising supplement in the pages that followed (these were the years of the New Economic Policy). Equal in length to the previous, political section, it featured commercials on everything from massages to cures for venereal diseases. It was dominated by the massive advert (covering the whole final page) for two oil firms from Grozny and Baku.

The page with Gramsci’s article was also notable for the paid inserts by local workers’ groups to express their enthusiasm for the celebration of the revolutionary anniversary, along with their greetings to their most appreciated vozhdi (leaders). Surprisingly, they address only one figure with the informal “you,” as if speaking to a truly dear and beloved figure: the workers of the great Dinamo plant use this not for Lenin, but the “dear comrade Trotsky.”

Gramsci’s Piece

The recently rediscovered article is signed simply “Gramsci (Italy).” It is one among a dozen contributions by representatives of various Communist Parties, preceded by the list of fifty-five parties and organizations then signed up to the Comintern. Gramsci’s is not a long text, though all the others are of similar size, set on the same page under the great stylized title “The Growth of the Comintern.” The piece on Italy follows others by German, French, and British comrades and is followed by others from Switzerland, the United States, Hungary, Bulgaria, India, etc.

Like the other foreign communists, Gramsci addressed himself to a Russian public, to the Russian party, but also to the Comintern leadership group, relating the development of the PCd’I and seeking to explain the “March on Rome” that had taken place a few days previously.

Firstly, he seems to confirm the difficult situation that the PCd’I faced, in several parts of the country reduced to a conspiratorial movement. Fascist violence had begun already some time earlier. Its conquest of governmental power and a good part of the state apparatus seemed to justify Gramsci’s predictions (and soon after, in early January, a warrant was issued for the arrest of all the Communist leaders, including Gramsci, who had signed an antifascist appeal during the Fourth Congress; Bordiga would be arrested on February 3, 1923).

While Bordiga underestimated the “March on Rome” and fascism itself (as recounted by Ravera in the passage cited above) Gramsci asserted that “a new period of history is beginning” in Italy. This was characterized by the industrial faction of the capitalist bourgeoisie’s loss of political power, which it ceded to the “middling and big agrarian strata, ideologically guided by a part of the urban petty bourgeoisie.” It was, then, the strength of agrarian fascism that had led Mussolini to make a bid for power. Yet for Gramsci, this victory for the landowners would lead to an “imminent period of fierce struggle,” for it could be expected that the industrial bourgeoisie would not accept this loss of power or being led by a lowly “adventurer” like Mussolini.

A few days later, fascism was also a subject (if not the preeminent one) of the Fourth Congress, thanks to the two reports entrusted to Karl Radek and Bordiga. As we earlier summarized, Bordiga’s analyses hardly convinced Lenin. But according to historian Paolo Spriano, Radek “sought to give a more precise social evaluation of the rise of fascism, pointing to the malaise of the petty bourgeoisie as its main matrix.” For Spriano, “with these emphases Radek doubtless reflected, even if somewhat schematically, suggestions and insights from Gramsci, regarding both the role of the petty bourgeoisie and certain cues regarding the relationship between the workers’ movement and veterans.”

The Congress’s message to the Italian workers moreover seemed to echo the assessment contained in Gramsci’s article, as it stated that the “fascists are primarily a weapon in the hands of the great landowners. The industrial and commercial bourgeoisie is anxiously monitoring the experiment in fierce reaction which it considers to be a black Bolshevism.”

The entrenchment of fascist power — and the power of Mussolini personally — would still have to overcome great turbulence. This confirms the judgement which Gramsci passed in his November 7 article (even if it was overly optimistic). The “Matteotti crisis” (in summer 1924, when the opposition parties quit parliament after the blackshirt murder of reformist-socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti) was the clearest example of this.

Doubtless, Gramsci’s claim that “the future prospects for both the proletariat and its party are not particularly negative” today seems mistaken. Gramsci’s hope was that, also thanks to the International’s experience, the PCd’I would prove able to adopt a tactic “adequate to the realities of Italian society,” heightening the contradictions created by the fascist coup. the reference in brackets (“taking into account the experience of the international communist movement”) also seems to hint at the difference between his position and Bordiga’s, and indeed between Bordiga’s and that of Lenin and the Comintern. Ultimately, it expressed the hope that the International could “correct” Bordiga’s approach and his underestimation of fascism.

Upon Gramsci’s October 25 meeting with Lenin, the two men had also discussed fascism, and how it ought to be explained and confronted. The clashes between Bordiga and the International would harshen at the Fourth Congress, starting with the Comintern’s “united front” policy, which Bordiga rejected.

This did not mean that Gramsci had already ended his hesitations and decided to oppose the party’s most authoritative leader. Still further water would have to pass under the bridge before the slow reckoning that came in late 1923 and early 1924. But it is worth noting that diverging readings of fascism were an important element in the gradually developing contrast between the two leaders.

In the months that followed the Fourth Congress, the Italian Communists led by Bordiga were not just hit hard by the state’s repressive apparatuses, but consumed a great deal of energy in trying to oppose the Comintern’s non-sectarian line. Bordiga sought to avert a reunification with the Socialist Party, which had only a few days before the “March on Rome” expelled the reformist wing headed by Filippo Turati and Giacomo Matteotti.

Gramsci returned to Italy in April 1924, after spending a few months in Vienna. Soon — having become the PCd’I’s main leader, also thanks to the International’s decisive support — he would have to confront the crisis following Matteotti’s murder. For a few months, Mussolinian fascism seemed to be on the brink of collapse. But that’s another story — different from the situation in which Gramsci assessed the “March on Rome” in Pravda on the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution.

—Natalya Terekhova and Guido Liguori