Oppressed and Oppressors

The struggle waged by humanity from time immemorial is truly amazing. It is an incessant struggle, one in which mankind strives to tear off and break the chains with which the lust for power on the part of a single man, or a single class, or even of a whole people, attempt to shackle it. This struggle is an epic that has had innumerable heroes and has been written down by historians all over the world. Men, when they come to feel their strength and to be conscious of their responsibility and their value, will no longer suffer another man to impose his will on them and claim the right to control their actions and thoughts. For it would seem to be a cruel fate for humans, this instinct that drives them to devour one another in place of bringing their united strength to bear on the struggle against Nature, the struggle to adapt it to men's needs. Indeed, once a people feel themselves to be strong and hardened, they think of nothing but of attacking their neighbours, of hunting and oppressing them. For it is clear that every victor desires to destroy the vanquished. But men, who by their very nature are hypocritical and false, do not say outright: “I wish to conquer in order to destroy”, but say instead: “I wish to conquer in order to civilize.” And the rest of mankind, who envy the victor, but await their turn to do the same, make a show of believing in it and offer their praises.

So it comes about that civilization has stopped in its tracks in place of further expanding and progressing; so it comes about that whole races of noble and intelligent people have been destroyed or are in the process of dying out. The liquor and opium that their civilizing masters distributed to them in such abundance have done their damaging work.

Then one day a rumour is sparked: a student has assassinated the English governor of the Indies; or the Italians have been defeated at Dogali; or the boxers have wiped out the European missionaries – and then horror-stricken old Europe inveighs against the barbarians, against the uncivilized hordes, and a new crusade against these unfortunate peoples is announced.

Yet it is a fact that the people of Europe have had their own oppressors and waged bloody battles to rid themselves of them. They now erect statues and monuments in marble to their liberators, their heroes, and raise to the level of a national religion the cult of those who died for the homeland. Just try to tell the Italians that the Austrians came to bring us civilization – the marble columns themselves would groan in protest. Yes, it is true that we have gone off to carry civilization overseas, and now you know those peoples have come to like us and thank heaven for their good fortune. But it is well known: sic vos non nobis [what's good for you won't do for us]. The truth on the contrary consists in insatiable greed shared by all men to fleece their fellows, to take from them what little they have been able to put aside through privations. Wars are waged for reasons of commerce, not civilization: the English bombarded who knows how many cities in China because the Chinese did not want to have anything to do with their opium. The very opposite of civilization! And Russians and Japanese slaughtered each other over the question of trade with Korea and Manchuria. The property of the wretched subjects is pillaged and they are deprived of any status whatsoever. Yet this is not enough for the highly civilized people of today. The Romans were content with binding their vanquished opponents to their triumphal chariots – then they made‬ the defeated land into a province. But now the victors would like all the inhabitants of the colonies to disappear, to make room for the new arrivals.

But when the voice of an honest man is raised in protest at these outrages, these abuses, which a healthy social morality and civilization would try to prevent, people laugh in his face – for he is ingenuous, he is not acquainted with the machiavellian niceties that govern political life. We Italians adore Garibaldi; from the cradle we are taught to admire him, and Carducci has enthused us with his Garibaldian legends. If one were to ask Italian youngsters whom they would most like to be, the overwhelming majority would certainly opt for the blond hero. I remember a particular demonstration in commemoration of independence, when a friend said to me: “How come everyone is shouting 'Long live Garibaldi' and no one is shouting 'Long live the king'?” I was unable to give him an explanation. In short, everyone in Italy, from the reds to the greens to the yellows, idolizes Garibaldi, but no one really understands his high ideals. When the Italian navy was sent to Crete to pull down the Greek flag which the insurgents had raised, and hoist in its place the Turkish flag, no one raised a cry of protest. That's right: the fault lay with the people of Candia, who wanted to upset the European balance. And not one of the Italians who perhaps on that very day was acclaiming Sicily's heroic liberator paused to reflect that if Garibaldi were alive today, he would not have shrunk from taking on all the European powers in order to help a people gain their liberty. And then we Italians protest when someone comes along and accuses us of being a nation addicted to rhetoric!

And how long will this contrast last? Carducci asked himself: “When will labour be joyful? When will love be secure?” But we are still awaiting a reply, and who will be able to give it? Many people say that men have now achieved all the liberty and civilization that is their lot, and now all they have to do is enjoy the fruits of their struggles. On the contrary, I believe that far more remains to be done. Men posses nothing more than a veneer of civilization – one only has to scratch them to lay bare the wolf-skin underneath. Instincts have been tamed, but not destroyed, and still the right of might is the only right that is recognized. The French revolution abolished many privileges, and raised up many of the oppressed; but all it did was replace one class in power by another. Yet it did teach us one great lesson: social privileges and differences, being products of society and not of nature, can be overcome. Humanity will need another bloodbath to abolish many of these injustices – and then it will be too late for the rulers to be sorry they left the hordes in that state of ignorance and savagery they enjoy today.

A school essay, hand-written probably in 1911, when Gramsci was in his final year at the Dettori secondary school in Cagliari.