New York, South Bronx, Forest Houses, 1010 Tinton Avenue, between 163rd and 165th. Many square skyscrapers made of red, old (and, therefore, rough) bricks, no more than 15 floors tall, like all popular buildings in the city where there’s still a million blocked properties and, therefore, they are inhabited by poor but privileged people. Almost all of them African-Americans. The neighborhood is on the periphery, but it’s green.
And in the middle of the small park, among the houses, there’s even a monument to Antonio Gramsci. Yes, it’s true, our Antonio. It’s made of a sculpture and three small wooden buildings in which some kind of political-cultural club is headquartered — they are very recent, from 2013 — built by Thomas Hirschhorn.
I traveled across half of New York to find the place, of which none of my friends in the Left Forum where I was a guest in the past days (as for the past 30 years), knew it even existed. But I’ve insisted because I saw time ago the image in The New York Times, accompanied by a long, somewhat skeptic, article explaining the genesis: a well known artist who decided to build similar monuments in popular neighborhoods in other cities, each one dedicated to a philosopher he thought to be very important: beside Gramsci, there’s Baruch Spinoza, George Bataille, Gilles Deleuze.
Someone, I don’t remember in which country in the world, confirmed to me that the statue really existed and that, an activist center inspired by Gramsci himself was created around the statue.
The ‘lost’ activist
It’s useless for me to give other details because, after having finally arrived at the place after much vagabonding between trees and buildings, I had to give up: The monument has been recently removed. Not for political reasons, simply because the exposure to bad weather had deteriorated it and no one was taking care of it. As you can imagine, I was very angry because of that.
Gramsci’s fate in America, however, isn’t as sad as the one shared by his monument. Not only that, but in the academies there has been for many years encouraging and intelligent research on the Italian thinker. They call him “thinker,” as many do outside Italy: Very few of them seem to know that Gramsci wasn’t just a great intellectual but also a political activist. And not only that but the leader of the biggest communist party in the West.
And so we understand why we might happen to hear him quoted in universities but practically never in the Left Forum’s panels filled up with frontline activists or in similar gatherings. And why, in the so many banquets set up for the occasion, where all the possible merchandise in Marxist books, his books are a rarity. Nonetheless the Forum which, until not so long ago, was called Socialist Scholars’ Conference and, therefore, was promoted by left-wing staff in the universities in the West and on the East Coast, has always had participating intellectuals, and continues to have many of them. But even when they were among the active participants in this yearly gathering — articulated in hundreds of workshops, admission to which is not cheap — Gramsci was always avoided.
Because the American left is like this: excepting for the elders — there are many of them — who still wear the basco in honor of the Spanish Civil War and continue to argue over Trotsky and Rosa — for the militants of the many combating communitarian aggregations, politics is one thing while culture is another.
I’ve made this long premise to explain why in these three fast days spent in New York, in the full swing of an electoral campaign animated by an en masse culture clash like never before, beside not having found Gramsci’s monument, I haven’t even found a serious “Gramsci-ist” reflection on the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, which, if our “thinker” had been put to good use, would have appeared as being a necessary premise for any debate.
Sanders, on the other hand, has always been home here and it was here that I, myself, met him, when he was still mayor of Burlington, a small town in Vermont, and then a socialist senator representing that state, alien to the rest of the country.
Elections in the workshops
Of course, in many workshops there has been a lot of talk about the primaries but, mostly, to measure each one’s distance from the challenger Hillary Clinton (there were even a few signs declaring him as being too little on the left for America) or just to ask themselves what should be done in case Clinton should be the one remaining to face Trump; or, again, how is Bernie going to act in this case?
The fear is that he might be sucked in by the establishment, which might give him some content by inserting him in the next president’s team, so as to obtain for the democratic candidate the votes, not at all secured until now, of those who have been fighting, until now, for the socialist candidate.
And this is why, many among the most authoritative commentators insist in saying that maybe Sanders might have a better chance of defeating Trump than Clinton had. He would bring in teenagers to vote who otherwise wouldn’t have even gone to the polls. The last surveys confirm this: Sanders is above Trump by 10.8 percentage points, while Clinton is going head to head with the Republican rival. And Sanders is decisively more likeable: He has favorability among 41 percent of the people questioned by a CBS-New York Times poll, while Clinton is just at 31 percent, and Trump at 26 percent.
Nonetheless, the most important questions posed by this massive and radicalized mobilization is related to understanding who are these youngsters, where do they come from, which experiences have they lived, which readings have oriented them and what is their view of the world? And, again, do they represent an episode or a lasting mutation?
This is the true question beyond Bernie’s fate: Will the movement that has animated the electoral campaign last beyond the vote, and in which forms, or will it be re-absorbed, as happened eight years ago with the mobilization — though smaller and, anyway, a lot less radicalized stirred for Obama?
The most aware have realized that the most important thing to be done is to preserve and to increase this heritage, not to disperse it. This is, most of all, what Sanders is going to have to deal with in the future. And they themselves, the radical left’s core groups, going beyond the dilemma that has always afflicted them: to operate within the Democratic Party and end up being co-opted by its power machine, or to remain outside of it, risking to become invisible and irrelevant.
Sanders’ merit, in reality, has been exactly that of not having allowed himself to be crushed by a two-party system that’s so rigid as to make necessary the creation of a third, but still failed, political force, both on the left as well as on the right. In fact, the candidate everybody defines as a socialist has chosen to run in the primaries — outside of which he would not have existed — but has remained very far and independent from the party’s powerful structures. This is why he gain unheard of support among young people, and even among women (82 percent among those under 30 years old in New Hampshire, or 73 percent among those under 45 in Nevada, for example). Meanwhile, an increasing number of feminist groups oppose Clinton, exactly because she is the symbol of the establishment’s despised emancipatory ideal: the career woman.
Sanders was able to do today what others haven’t been able to do in the past because, in the last few years the Democratic Party/invisibility dilemma has lost weight. Something deep has broken in the American system, and also in Europe. The traditional model of representative democracy wasn’t working anymore, and everyone is becoming aware of this. The youngest want to speak directly, rather than through representatives. If you add to this the unprecedented inequality produced by the system, you understand why the revolt against the establishment has spread to this point (expressing itself on the left as well as on the right).
Rightfully, Angela Davis told me with the occasion of her recent trip to Rome; the Occupy movement has seemed to disappear because the squares that were full in 2011 have become empty. But their legacy has continued to move the debate. This, Angela added, has been, in the end, Obama’s merit: to have allowed that movement to spread without repressing it like any other president probably would have done.
Less seemingly, Occupy has, in fact, seeded a myriad of fighting movements involving the fragmented world of precarious workers which exists even in Europe: from the fast food employees working for less than $15 an hour, to the students — a million — working in the university services to pay for their studies and claim the right to have a union. They too, like us, are fighting the next jump in wild globalization, the trade agreements on commerce and investments in the Atlantic and Pacific, and so on.
Political subjects to be built
A prediction about what will happen is difficult even for people living in America and know a lot more than me. Certainly, the Democratic Party’s rigid and anti-democratic electoral system, which awards the fate of the primaries to a disciplined cadre of superdelegates — 540 of whom have already pronounced themselves in favor of HIllary Clinton against only 42 for Bernie — rather than to the electorate, says that the game has already been played and, moreover, that the decision had already been made before the competition started.
But winning and becoming the president of the United States isn’t Sanders sole objective. (even with if he had the White House, what could he do if American society remains what it is?) The real aim is building a different collective political dialogue, which might really change things in the long run. Whether he will be successful in doing it or not, we will see it in the middle of June when many of the pro-Sanders groups gather in Chicago in what they called “the people’s summit.”
During this event, it will be possible to better evaluate the consistency of the new movement and the possibility for a credible leadership to emerge from the new generation of left-wing activists. It’s already a fact that what’s happening in the United States — because of the mobilization of what has been called “the left wing of the possible” — is the creation of a left that, until recently, we never thought possible to even dream of.
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