May 1. 2019. Happy May Day! Did you know that Americans started the celebration of workers on May Day? Or that the quintessential American composer Aaron Copland wrote an anthem in honor of May Day, titled “Into the Streets May First”? When I was a kid in the 1950s, I learned that September’s Labor Day was developed to draw workers away from those subversives who celebrate Red May Day. For a while we were told to celebrate Loyalty Day on May 1. Now it’s called Law Day. The irony in 2019 is that celebrating the rule of law is probably as subversive as celebrating worker rule.
When I was in my 20s and exploring the world beyond the anti-communist Catholic ghetto in which I was raised, I started to read the Italian Antonio Gramsci. I particularly liked the way he analyzed how the Catholic Church maintained its ideological hold on people. Catholic philosophy and structures were worthy objects of study. His approach was much more effective in freeing my mind than any angry diatribes against the “opiate of the people.”
In this way Gramsci was practicing one of his favorite aphorisms: pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will. I’ve posted about this saying before. Look at bad events with open eyes. Don’t let wishes get in the way of analysis. When you know how bad things are and how they can get even worse, then you know better what you have to do to change them. The “quote” from Gramsci at the head of this post needs to be read as “pessimism of the intellect” to guide “optimism of the will.”
Perhaps it’s a sign of aging, but lately I seem to be attracted to English aphorisms that are not very accurate translations of the original. In the case of this sentiment attributed to Gramsci, it’s like many internet quotations, not something he ever actually said or wrote. And like many internet phenomena, it has become a source of bitter polemics.
Here’s what Gramsci actually wrote in his Prison Notebooks as translated in the 1971 International Publishers edition
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
If you have any doubts, you can consult my copy bought in 1972, frayed around the edges, dust cover held together with tape, underlining throughout, with marginal notes printed in a steadier hand. (I still remember the owner of The Intimate Bookshop in Chapel Hill, NC, muttering about my book orders from International Publishers. My memory, which may be faulty, is that he finally told me I had to order directly from that publisher because he didn’t want to deal with them.)
The original Italian for the internet “monsters” and the translator’s “morbid symptoms” is fenomeni morbosi. We are surrounded today by morbid phenenoma. Like Gramsci we need to examine them carefully, understand that we are living in a time when the old is dying and the new cannot emerge yet, and use that understanding to help people take charge of the new and stand on their own.
Gramsci wrote these lines in 1930 in the aftermath of World War I and at the outset of the Great Depression. In the sentence just before this quote, he says:
… the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc.
When there is a “crisis of authority” in which “the ruling class has lost its consensus,” the danger is that “the death of old ideologies takes the form of scepticism with regard to all theories.” Instead, our political and economic efforts must focus on “the possibility and necessity of a creating a new culture.”