Gramsci on the great divide between north and south

Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci explores Italy’s social stratification between the wealthy north and the impoverished south – a divide that holds to this day.

The death of Diego Maradona, hero of Naples, the largest city in southern Italy, has focused global attention on the divide in Italy between the rich north and the historically impoverished south. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist leader and intellectual, began work on “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” in 1926. He was arrested by the Fascists before he could finish it, but it has become a classic, often taken up by intellectuals in the Global South. Gramsci excoriates intellectuals – including socialist intellectuals – for misusing the language of science to present southerners as an ignorant and politically docile mass. This is a lightly edited extract from the essay.

It is well known what kind of ideology has been disseminated in myriad ways among the masses in the north, by the propagandists of the bourgeoisie: the south is the ball and chain which prevents the social development of Italy from progressing more rapidly; the southerners are biologically inferior beings, semi-barbarians or total barbarians, by natural destiny; if the south is backward, the fault does not lie with the capitalist system or with any other historical cause, but with nature, which has made the southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric – only tempering this harsh fate with the purely individual explosion of a few great geniuses, like isolated palm trees in an arid and barren desert. The Socialist Party was to a great extent the vehicle for this bourgeois ideology within the northern proletariat. The Socialist Party gave its blessing to all the “southernist” literature of the clique of writers who made up the so-called positive school who in articles, tales, short stories, novels, impressions and memoirs, in a variety of forms, reiterated one single refrain. Once again, “science” was used to crush the wretched and exploited; but this time it was dressed in socialist colours, and claimed to be the science of the proletariat.

The Turin communists reacted energetically against this ideology, precisely in Turin itself, where war veterans’ reminiscences and descriptions of “banditry” in the south and the islands had most powerfully influenced the popular traditions and outlook. They reacted energetically, in practical forms, and succeeded in achieving concrete results of the greatest historical significance. They succeeded in achieving, precisely in Turin, embryonic forms of what will be the solution to the southern problem.

The south can be defined as a great social disintegration. The peasants, who make up the great majority of its population, have no cohesion among themselves (of course, some exceptions must be made: Apulia, Sardinia, Sicily, where there exist special characteristics within the great canvas of the south’s structure). Southern society is a great agrarian bloc, made up of three social layers: the great amorphous, disintegrated mass of the peasantry; the intellectuals of the petty and medium rural bourgeoisie; and the big landowners and great intellectuals. The southern peasants are in perpetual ferment, but as a mass they are incapable of giving a centralised expression to their aspirations and needs. The middle layer of intellectuals receives the impulses for its political and ideological activity from the peasant base. The big landowners in the political field and the great intellectuals in the ideological field centralise and dominate, in the last analysis, this whole complex of phenomena. Naturally, it is in the ideological sphere that the centralisation is most effective and precise.

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The southern intellectuals are one of the most interesting and important social strata in Italian national life. One only has to think of the fact that more than three-fifths of the state bureaucracy is made up of southerners to convince oneself of this. Now, to understand the particular psychology of the southern intellectuals, it is necessary to keep in mind certain factual data.

1. In every country, the layer of intellectuals has been radically modified by the development of capitalism. The old type of intellectual was the organising element in a society with a mainly peasant and artisanal basis. To organise the state, to organise commerce, the dominant class bred a particular type of intellectual. Industry has introduced a new type of intellectual: the technical organiser, the specialist in applied science. In the societies where the economic forces have developed in a capitalist direction, to the point where they have absorbed the greater part of national activity, it is this second type of intellectual which has prevailed, with all his characteristics of order and intellectual discipline. In the countries, on the other hand, where agriculture still plays a considerable or even preponderant role, the old type has remained predominant. It provides the bulk of the state personnel; and locally too, in the villages and little country towns, it has the function of intermediary between the peasant and the administration in general. In southern Italy this type predominates, with all its characteristic features. Democratic in its peasant face; reactionary in the face turned towards the big landowner and the government: politicking, corrupt and faithless. One could not understand the traditional cast of the southern political parties, if one did not take the characteristics of this social stratum into account.

2. The southern intellectual mainly comes from a layer which is still important in the south: the rural bourgeois. In other words, the petty and medium landowner who is not a peasant, who does not work the land, who would be ashamed to be a farmer, but who wants to extract from the little land he has – leased out either for rent or on a simple share-cropping basis – the wherewithal to live fittingly; the wherewithal to send his sons to a university or seminary; and the wherewithal to provide dowries for his daughters, who must marry officers or civil functionaries of the state. From this social layer, the intellectuals derive a fierce antipathy to the working peasant – who is regarded as a machine for work to be bled dry, and one which can be replaced, given the excess working population. They also acquire an atavistic, instinctive feeling of crazy fear of the peasants with their destructive violence; hence, they practise a refined hypocrisy and a highly refined art of deceiving and taming the peasant masses.

3. Since the clergy belong to the social group of intellectuals, it is necessary to note the features which distinguish the southern clergy as a whole from the northern clergy. The northern priest is generally the son of an artisan or a peasant, has democratic sympathies, is more tied to the mass of peasants. Morally, he is more correct than the southern priest, who often lives more or less openly with a woman. He therefore exercises a spiritual function that is more complete, from a social point of view, in that he guides a family’s entire activities. In the north, the separation of church from state and the expropriation of ecclesiastical goods was more radical than in the south, where the parishes and convents either have preserved or have reconstituted considerable assets, both fixed and movable. In the south, the priest appears to the peasant: 1. as a land administrator, with whom the peasant enters into conflict on the question of rents; 2. as a usurer, who asks for extremely high rates of interest and manipulates the religious element in order to make certain of collecting his rent or interest; 3. as a man subject to all the ordinary passions (women and money), and who therefore, from a spiritual point of view, inspires no confidence in his discretion and impartiality. Hence confession exercises only the most minimal role of guidance, and the southern peasant, if often superstitious in a pagan sense, is not clerical. All this, taken together explains why in the south the Popular Party (except in some parts of Sicily) does not have any great position or possess any network of institutions and mass organisations. The attitude of the peasant towards the clergy is summed up in the popular saying: “The priest is a priest at the altar; outside, he is a man like anyone else.”

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The southern peasant is bound to the big landowner through the mediation of the intellectual. The peasant movements, insofar as they do not take the form of autonomous, independent mass organisations, even in a formal sense (ie capable of selecting out peasant cadres, themselves of peasant origin, and of registering and accumulating the differentiation and progress achieved within the movement), always end up by finding themselves a place in the ordinary articulations of the state apparatus – communes, provinces, Chamber of Deputies. This process takes place through the composition and decomposition of local parties, whose personnel is made up of intellectuals, but which are controlled by the big landowners and their agents.

Southern Italy represents a great social disintegration. This formula can be applied not only to the peasants, but also to the intellectuals. It is a remarkable fact that in the south, side by

side with huge property, there have existed and continue to exist great accumulations of culture and intelligence in single individuals, or small groups of great intellectuals, while there does not exist any organisation of middle culture. There exist in the south the Laterza publishing house, and the review La Critica. There exist academies and cultural bodies of the greatest erudition. But there do not exist small or medium reviews, nor publishing houses around which medium groupings of southern intellectuals might form. The southerners who have sought to leave the agrarian bloc and pose the southern question in a radical form have found hospitality in, and grouped themselves around, reviews printed outside the south. Indeed, one might say that all the cultural initiatives by medium intellectuals which have taken place in this century in central and northern Italy have been characterised by southernism, because they have been strongly influenced by southern intellectuals.

The supreme political and intellectual rulers of all these initiatives have been Giustino Fortunato and Benedetto Croce. In a broader sphere than the stifling agrarian bloc, they have seen to it that the problems of the south would be posed in a way which did not go beyond certain limits; did not become revolutionary. Men of the highest culture and intelligence, who arose on the traditional terrain of the south but were linked to European and hence to world culture, they had all the necessary gifts to satisfy the intellectual needs of the most sincere representatives of the cultured youth in the south; to comfort their restless impulses to revolt against existing conditions; to steer them along a middle way of classical serenity in thought and action. The so-called neo-protestants or Calvinists have failed to understand that in Italy, since modern conditions of civilisation rendered impossible any mass religious reform, the only historically possible reformation has taken place with Benedetto Croce’s philosophy. The direction and method of thought have been changed and a new conception of the world has been constructed, transcending Catholicism and every other mythological religion. In this sense, Benedetto Croce has fulfilled an extremely important “national” function. He has detached the radical intellectuals of the south from the peasant masses, forcing them to take part in national and European culture; and through this culture, he has secured their absorption by the national bourgeoisie and hence by the agrarian bloc.

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L’Ordine Nuovo and the Turin communists – if in a certain sense they can be related to the intellectual formations to which we have alluded; and if, therefore, they too have felt the intellectual influence of Giustino Fortunato or of Benedetto Croce – nevertheless represent at the same time a complete break with that tradition and the beginning of a new development, which has already borne fruit and which will continue to do so. They posed the urban proletariat as the modern protagonist of Italian history, and hence also of the southern question. Having served as intermediaries between the proletariat and certain strata of Left intellectuals, they succeeded in modifying – if not completely at least to a notable extent – their mental outlook.

Intellectuals develop slowly, far more slowly than any other social group, by their very nature and historical function. They represent the entire cultural tradition of a people, seeking to resume and synthesise all of its history.

But it is important and useful for a break to occur in the mass of intellectuals: a break of an organic kind, historically characterised. For there to be formed, as a mass formation, a Left tendency, in the modern sense of the word: ie one oriented towards the revolutionary proletariat. The alliance between proletariat and peasant masses requires this formation. It is all the more required by the alliance between proletariat and peasant masses in the south. The proletariat will destroy the southern agrarian bloc insofar as it succeeds, through its party, in organising increasingly significant masses of poor peasants into autonomous and independent formations. But its greater or lesser success in this necessary task will also depend upon its ability to break up the intellectual bloc that is the flexible, but extremely resistant, armour of the agrarian bloc. This is gigantic and difficult, but precisely worthy of every sacrifice (even that of life) on the part of those intellectuals (and there are many of them, more than is believed) – from north and south – who have understood that only two social forces are essentially national and bearers of the future: the proletariat and the peasants.

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