Some Aspects of the Southern Question

Gramsci, Antonio. 1926. “Some Aspects of the Southern Question.” From Antonio Gramsci: Pre-Prison Writings (1994), edited by Richard Bellamy and translated by Virgina Cox.

“Some Aspects of the Southern Question” is an incredible essay. Antonio Gramsci was arrested as he was writing the essay, so it remains unfinished, but his Prison Notebooks can be read as an extended meditation on the issues he raises in the essay (leaving aside the all-important and intimately related “Theses on Feuerbach” in Gramsci’s development of a philosophy of praxis). In the essay, Gramsci masterfully manages to analytically overlay class, regional, urban-rural, social, religious, finance, and international relations into an incisive diagram or map of power that dissects how a particular political project (Fascism) is built and maintained in all its socio-spatial complexity—all this in just 24 pages (my version). This analysis forms the basis of the vision of class-regional alliances—namely, the northern proletariat and the southern peasantry—that Gramsci deems necessary for a revolutionary transformation in Italy.

Gramsci excoriates intellectuals—including those among the socialist camp—for propagating an ideology that presents, often in “scientific” discourse, southerners as a docile and ignorant mass that is irretrievably and naturally inclined to the so-called “idiocy of rural life” (Marx’s words). He notes how this ideology had blocked a move toward fractioning regional alliances by making them into cross-regional, class alliances. It is in regard to the popular perceptions northern workers and southern peasants had of each other that one gets a sense of how Gramsci emphasized the importance of people’s everyday “perceptions of the world” in social change. Even in the case of southern brigades (mostly peasants) that were called in to repress northern workers on strike, he perceived transformations “that can still be felt today and that continue to work away in the hearts and minds of the popular masses. They illuminated, for an instant, brains that had never thought in that way and that remained marked by the experience and radically changed” (321).

He goes on to say, “For this approach to be politically effective, the proletariat had to make it its own: that goes without saying. No mass action is possible unless the mass itself is convinced of the ends it wishes to achieve and the methods to apply” (321). For Gramsci, this involved the need for mobilized sectors to transcend its narrow corporativist interest by engaging a broader sense of solidarity. The inability to accomplish such solidarities is what allowed bourgeois forces to establish their hegemony by disingenuously acceding to workers in 1900-1910 at the expense of the peasantry, thus disabling what was activism in both cities and rural areas (though not of the coordinated sort) (323).

Gramsci viewed syndicalism as precisely the sort of arrangement that would end up benefitting the bourgeois and instrumental for turning peasants against workers. A struggle at the Turin Fiat plant is the example that Gramsci uses to foresee how capitalists acceding to a syndicalist arrangement (cooperatively managed factories) would fail: the banks would suck the worker-controlled plant dry, the state would have to bail it out, and the state could then point to the “privileged” worker-owners as the source of peasants’ misery (325-326). The syndicalist proposal was defeated by the Fiat workers, as happened in another parallel struggle in Reggio Emilia. Later on a mass of workers in both plants were laid off, but Gramsci hails the experiences as proof of workers ability to transcend corporativism.

As for the South, Gramsci saw “perpetual [social] ferment” but little organization. “Southern society is a great agrarian bloc made up of three social strata: the great amorphous, scattered mass of the peasantry; the intellectuals of the lower and middle strata of the rural bourgeoisie; and the great landowners and major intellectuals” (327).

He saw the major intellectuals as the main sources of disarticulation vis-à-vis radical political movements in the South. Large landowners and the major intellectuals managed to hold the system in place. “Naturally, it is in the ideological field that this centralization is at its most precise and efficacious. Thus Giustino Fortunato and Benedetto Croce represent the two keystones of the whole Southern system and, in a certain sense, they are the two central figures of Italian reaction” (328). For this reason, Gramsci once called Croce—I paraphrase—“Italy’s hardest-working millionaire” (or something along those lines).

Gramsci spends much of the remainder of the essay discussing the role of intellectuals in southern society. He sees their role as principally one of mediation: between peasants and landowners as well as between peasants and the state (both local and national). It’s the role of the intellectual, according to Gramsci, that holds together the “monstrous agrarian bloc” (331) that subordinates the peasantry to the large landowners. “Over and above the agrarian bloc, there is also an intellectual bloc at work in the South, which in practice has served up till now to prevent the cracks in the agrarian bloc from becoming too dangerous and causing a landslide” (333). The all-important middle-strata of intellectuals in the south, says Gramsci, is either entirely missing or has no relevance due to a lack of cultural infrastructure (journals, publishing houses, etc.) or has been wooed by Croce and turned toward a European, cosmopolitan intellectualism rather than engaged with the local peasantry; what’s more, he says that Croce actually helped create an almost insurmountable wedge between middle intellectuals and the peasantry (334).

Intellectuals develop slowly, far more slowly than any other social group, because of their very nature and historical function. They represent the entire cultural tradition of a people; they seek to express and synthesize the whole of its history. That is true in particular of the old type of intellectual, born on peasant soil. It is absurd to think that such intellectuals, en masse, can possibly break completely with the past and transplant themselves entirely on to the terrain of a new ideology. It is absurd where intellectuals en masse are concerned and perhaps absurd. (336)

Gramsci concludes the essay with a call to intellectual arms. Intellectuals are needed, he says, to break up the agrarian bloc and for the consolidation of a worker-peasant alliance. In this essay, Gramsci is still working with a definition of intellectuals much more formal and restricted that the elaborate version he develops in the Prison Notebooks.

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