Bringing Antonio Gramsci Back to Turin

Angelo D'Orsi

Turin was once Italian labor's most famous heartland, inspiring a young Antonio Gramsci to become a Communist. Today, Gramsci scholar Angelo D'Orsi is bidding to win the mayor's office — by mobilizing the working-class voters that the neoliberalized center-left abandoned.

Angelo D'Orsi, a well-known biographer of Antonio Gramsci, is running for mayor in Turin. (Riccardo Cuppini / Flickr)

Interview by
David Broder

Turin is one of the historic fortresses of Italian labor. The industrial city on the edge of the Alps was the center of totemic struggles like the factory occupations of 1919–20, the workers’ first strikes against Fascism in 1943 and the new wave of shopfloor militancy in the 1960s. The city is also deeply connected to the history of the Left: it was the birthplace of Antonio Gramsci’s l’Ordine Nuovo newspaper and was a red heartland throughout postwar history, with a Communist-controlled city hall through much of the 1970s and ’80s.

But today, Turin has changed: the famous FIAT autoworks at Mirafiori today employs only a few thousand workers (down from as many as one hundred thousand), and the workforce has been hit by deindustrialization and the offensive against hard-won labor rights. The liberalized left has also grown apart from its own historic base: in the 2016 city hall elections, it was the eclectic Five Star Movement and its candidate Chiara Appendino who swept to victory, piling up large majorities in once solidly Communist districts.

The scandal-hit Appendino will not be running again in this fall’s mayoral elections: but one candidate who has already put his name in the ring is historian Angelo D’Orsi. Well-known in Italy as a biographer of Antonio Gramsci, he is leading a united-left list, aimed at mobilizing voters who have for too long been overlooked. D’Orsi spoke to Jacobin‘s David Broder about why he’s running, the changing face of Turin, and why we shouldn’t swallow the notion that the working class has disappeared.

David Broder

You’re a historian especially known for your work on Antonio Gramsci — but this is the first time you’re running for election. Why go into politics?

Angelo D'Orsi

I was actually a bit surprised when I was asked to run. I agreed mainly because this was a collective, united proposal coming from 90 percent of the so-called radical left (that is, to the left of the Democrats, who I don’t consider left-wing). After a process lasting several weeks — not involving me — a joint proposal was made.

They picked me as the candidate because I’m somewhat known as an intellectual, and I’ve always been independent and not a party member, although I do think parties play an essential role in a democracy. I’ve always worked with a view to left unity. So, for me to run, it had to be representing a broad array of these forces, not any single one.

I’m well aware this is a “crazy” endeavor. But I’m also clearheaded about what we’re doing, with the greatest determination, and rejecting the idea of running just so we can say we took part. We need to fight to win. If that’s crazy — well, let’s fully commit to that. I’m working up all the optimism of my will, while also recognizing the need for a pessimism of the intellect. We have to assess how unfavorable the balance of forces is, but also be determined to change them.

David Broder

The unkind question would be: After so many attempts to bring together the Italian radical left, what’s going to be different this time?

Angelo D'Orsi

True, there have been efforts to federate, to unite, etc. in the past. But this is the first time that there’s an independent candidate, someone from outside the political forces: in this sense, my name served as a “glue.” In various other local areas, they’re talking about a “Turin Model” to imitate and reproduce, and that’s what I’m hoping for.

The difficult thing is convincing my supporters that we don’t just want to reach out to their sympathizers, their own base — for that would reach 5 percent of the vote, at most. We need to reach all the others. So, these forces have to make the effort to rein in their own identitarian spirit and open up to society.

I don’t think we represent a minority — we are the majority. That’s not because we call ourselves communists or populists or the “radical left” but because we give voice to the social majority who see that things aren’t going well and are suffering in silence, whether that means dropping their heads in resignation or entrenching themselves in impotent hopes. Perhaps they do not seek to change the social relations. But they want to give the public back what’s been taken from it, or they recognize the failure of the choices made by the various administrations over the last forty years. They want to change the city for the better by giving it back to its citizens.

David Broder

Turin is famous as the site of the factory occupations in “the two Red years” of 1919–20, of the first strikes against Fascism in 1943, and the shopfloor struggles of the 1960s. Recent decades have seen major defeats and also deindustrialization — yet even in 2021 there are still some big factories, on a reduced scale.

Can you give us a sense of how far this legacy still feeds a working-class identity in Turin, and how much this is — more than just nostalgia — something to build on today?

Angelo D'Orsi

The dominant narrative has long pushed the idea that the working class doesn’t exist anymore, that it’s been left behind by developments in capitalism, by new intelligent, remote forms of production.

But at a certain point — December 6, 2007, when seven workers were burned to death at the ThyssenKrupp steelworks — we saw that the working class does exist. That there are men and women doing manual, material labor. As Gramsci said, you can’t do manual labor without also mobilizing the intellect. So, we saw that this whole world still existed, even though it has been marginalized.

Even in purely numerical terms, there are still neighborhoods in Turin like Mirafiori [famous for its FIAT auto plant], still a working-class district, and the likes of Falchera and Le Vallette, considered home to an underclass, as well as a certain proletarian presence. I took part in a launch meeting for the Italian Communist list — one of the lists supporting me — in what we could call a half-working-class, half-underclass neighborhood, and what struck me was that the people at the meeting were, basically, workers. Some already pensioners, others working today.

Blue-collar workers still exist and still help give Turin its identity. The city has doubtless undergone massive deindustrialization, but we shouldn’t confuse the loss of FIAT for a total loss of industrial jobs. Turin is no longer a one-company town and no longer is there a city model in which the urban center dedicated to services is surrounded by a working-class periphery. But there is still a strong working-class presence that shapes the city and constitutes its economic underpinning. There is still this dimension of two opposed forces.

But the question is: How come a classic working-class neighborhood like Mirafiori, where the Communist Party used to take 80 or 90 percent of the vote, was won by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in the first elections in which he stood [in 1994]? How come in the last local elections, the Five Star Movement took 74 percent of the vote in proletarian Le Vallette? The ex-Communists who became the Democrats of the Left and then the Democrats have never confronted this question. How did they lose all these votes? In fact, these votes very often went nowhere — to not voting.

I think an intelligent campaign has to address the 30 or 40 percent of society that no longer votes, whether because they no longer feel represented or because they have been crushed by the insidious logic of “lesser evilism.” Often forces to the left of the Democrats haven’t been able to capture these potential voters, which extend beyond blue-collar workers alone, to what Gramsci would have called the “subaltern.”

In Turin, delivery riders are an important example. Many are foreigners, but many are Italian grads who end up delivering pizzas for firms like Glovo. These are not blue-collar but they are doubtless subaltern, and they’ve suffered these last eighteen months of crisis particularly heavily.

David Broder

As a Gramscian you’ll know that the Left has to not just voice the economic demands of the downtrodden but advance a project for all society. And — also in connection to the deindustrialization we talked about before — a particular problem Turin faces is pollution: its air quality is among the worst in Europe.

A certain neoliberal response emphasizes the need for big building projects to regenerate the city and carry through a green transition. So, how do we fight on this terrain? What projects, what investment, would be useful, and able to inspire nonvoters?

Angelo D'Orsi

In Turin it’s taken nine years to build a one-mile stretch of metro line, which they cut the ribbon for a few days ago amidst great pomp and ceremony — after nine years! Turin still doesn’t have a metro, just a mock version of one linking two little bits of the city. To fight for the city metro, rather than the TAV [High-Speed Trainline linking Turin to Lyons], is to fight against one of the main causes of pollution, namely private auto traffic. In 2016, Turin was Italian capital of pollution, and maybe second or third worst in Europe; and after five years of Five Star rule, it’s still winning these unfortunate accolades. The current mayor even faces legal action for her failure to take measures against pollution.

Rather than big building projects, we need lots of little ones. Rather than the TAV, I want to sort out the city’s sidewalks! This seems like a small issue, but it’s an important one: every year there are thousands of accidents because of the broken-up pavements and hundreds of legal actions against the City Hall responsible for their maintenance.

The other element is a strong opposition to big-name events. Again, I want little events in all the neighborhoods. Today, we have the problem of so-called movida [a pejorative term for nightlife]: now that they’re being let outside again, thousands of young people trapped at home in the week, and who live in neighborhoods lacking even the most essential services, pour out into the streets of the city center.

Certainly, that’s a problem for residents of these central areas. How is that being resolved? With repressive measures. But we instead need to offer these young people, who just want to hang out together, possible means of doing so. So, for instance we need theaters, little cinemas, throughout the whole city, not just in the center. Culture isn’t only a way of bringing people together but also an economic stimulus that can revive peripheral areas.

Today, there are almost medieval divides separating the Turin of the rich from the Turin of the poor. There is a central low-traffic zone reserved for the few fortunate enough to breathe in a better air. The city concentrates all its resources, its possibilities, its shopwindow, within those limits. That’s a divide we need to overcome.

I’ve raised the slogan “not one brick more,” which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t build anything else, but that we shouldn’t be eating up a single further square meter of public space. Yes, let’s adapt, reorganize, restructure, recover, but let’s stop building from scratch. The city ought to protect the little nature that still is there: parks, fields, hills, and rivers. This means creating jobs and employment, yes, but also stopping concreting over green space.

David Broder

Five Star’s Chiara Appendino won the Turin mayoral election in 2016 presenting herself as an honest person seeking to kick out the corrupt politicians. Yet she was forced to announce she wouldn’t run again in 2021, citing her own legal dramas.

What does Appendino’s term as mayor tell us about this party more generally? And what should we say to those who still see its new leader Giuseppe Conte (prime minister from June 2018 until February 2021) as a reference point for a progressive center-left?

Angelo D'Orsi

Five Star was a huge disappointment for a lot of people — also demonstrating the weakness of its project. This project was only ever hinted at, and there was nothing real behind it. One of the reasons was the low quality of its personnel — I was embarrassed to read about the past records of its city councilors in Turin, who had not the slightest cultural hinterland in any field. Secondly, Five Star proved perfectly able to join in with the worst aspects of the political logic they had initially challenged. They continued to drag the name of politics through the mud, in the dirtiest way, absolutely in continuity with what had gone before.

Indeed, the problem isn’t so much that Five Star betrayed its mission, as some have said. Rather, what emerged was continuity, even in terms of the social roots of political personnel. Appendino belongs to the same bourgeoisie that the Democrats’ leaders belong to — the business, financial, even cultural elite. They mix in the same circles, they eat the same dinners, and such integration makes continuity an almost natural result. Five Star proclaimed their will to break what had — quite effectively — been called the “Turin system,” and yet their intention was just to make space for themselves within it. Five Star is Italian history’s greatest example of opportunism and mass political transformism [unprincipled alliances integrating opposition forces into the powers-that-be].

Five Star was basically a sham, and I think in a few years we’ll have heard the last of it, not only in Turin. They have come and gone, doing a fair bit of damage along the way, but soon they’ll disappear. Former premier Conte is a fig leaf for Five Star, but nothing more than a canonical example of the worst Italian transformism. A sad, squalid figure — I don’t think he’ll be able to stitch anything back together.

David Broder

You mentioned transformism. Today, former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi is Italy’s prime minister, heading a government supported by almost all parties from center-left to far right, each looking to get their slice of post-pandemic recovery funds. Alongside this performance of national unity, we are always constantly told that class struggle or even the working class no longer exist. So, what can inject a sense of conflict back into Italian politics?

Angelo D'Orsi

Turin isn’t just a historic center of workers’ struggles — the strikes of August 1917, the “two Red years,” the antifascist strikes of March 1943 like you mentioned earlier — but an extraordinary cultural laboratory. Defeat has pulled the brakes on struggles. But there is still a working-class presence and a layer of intellectuals prepared to support its struggles.

Turin has the traditions of [economist and 1948–55 Italian president] Luigi Einaudi, of [anti-fascist] Piero Gobetti, obviously also of Antonio Gramsci. All of them exalted the beauty of struggle, as an essential factor for progress. Einaudi was a liberal-conservative figure, but nonetheless handed down important messages, for instance on tax justice.

Conflict is the catalyst for social change, and any attempt to forcibly harmonize conflicts is nonsense. It means fixing in place a relationship unfavorable to those already on the losing side. It means sanctifying the relationship of oppressor and oppressed. And the oppressed do exist — workers, but also the new subalterns and the newly proletarianized.

The grad who goes to work in a Vodafone call center — I even know of PhDs who work there — is a humiliated individual. They feel truly like they’ve been rejected by society. I dedicated my book on Gramsci to a young man who killed himself aged thirty, at the same moment I was correcting the proofs. He’d understood that his qualifications counted for nothing and he’d have to be a low-paid care worker.

We had a minister who called young Italians “dummies” who don’t want to work. But I’ve seen countless grads heading off for the most distant shores out of sheer desperation — also perhaps to distance themselves from their “ingrate homeland.” As an educator, I am personally wounded by the fact that they haven’t had any possibility of making a future for themselves, of putting to good use all the work they did. Many came from working-class families, for whom getting a kid through a PhD took enormous sacrifices. Then after a couple of years’ unemployment they leave the country, slamming the door behind them, so to speak.

We have to make people understand that behind the concept of harmony there’s an accepted conception of hierarchy, crystallized in the existing social relations. Struggle sets all of this in movement. That’s a message we have to get across to people. That means moving from desperation from hope, from grumbling to redemptive action, and from apathy to struggle.