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Antonio Gramsci: the dead man on holiday

by Tom Shakespeare

14th October 2009

Last month, I went on a pilgrimage. My nearest and dearest thought they were going to sun themselves by a pool and eat roast suckling pig in a traditional Italian country restaurant, but these were just sweeteners disguising my true motivation, which was to visit the childhood home of one of my disability heroes.
Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci was born in 1891, in Sardinia. His father was imprisoned after being unjustly accused of fraud, and the family became destitute. Gramsci had to leave school and work until his father was released. Gramsci had a malformation of the spine, rumoured to be caused when a nursemaid dropped him, and grew up impaired and frail. He was a brilliant student, and went on to the University of Turin, where he became involved with the revolutionary factory councils movement after the first world war, although poverty and poor health meant he had to abandon his studies.

In 1921, Gramsci was one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, and in November 1926 the Fascists arrested him, despite his immunity as a member of Parliament.

At his trial, the prosecutor chillingly demanded “We must stop this brain from working for twenty years”. Gramsci was confined in a series of prisons where, despite his declining health, he worked away at political theory, cultural analysis and an extraordinary series of letters to his family and comrades: he called himself “the dead man on holiday”.
Gramsci's grave
On April 27 1937, Gramsci died in Rome, after having been released on the grounds of poor health.

Italy is an extraordinary country, unique in Europe and with all sorts of problems: corruption, bureaucracy, organised crime, a controversial tycoon as prime minister and a poverty stricken south. But I’ve learned recently that it also stands out for remarkable achievements in the field of disability.

For example, in 1978, Italy reformed its psychiatric services, shutting the institutions and introducing community-based care: it now has fewer psychiatric beds than comparable countries, lower use of psychotropic drugs, and less than half the compulsory admissions of the UK. Laws passed in 1971 and 1977 guaranteed all disabled children the right to attend mainstream schools. Today, the vast majority of children are included in the mainstream, with only a few special schools for those with visual impairment or deafness.
Labelling is rejected, and non-disabled children learn to accept difference. In particular, people with intellectual impairment have benefitted from the resulting inclusion and improved employment prospects. The success of the Italian model was influential on Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Tom in sardinia
Oblivious to all this, my friend and I drove through the stunning rocky landscape of Sardinia to Ghilarza, the small country town where Gramsci spent his childhood. In the Casa Gramsci, there were photographs, letters, even the stone dumbbells which he made to build up his strength, and finally his death mask.

To see it all, I had to climb out of my wheelchair and crawl up the stairs, but that seemed the least I could do in honour of a man who had suffered so much. A hero to the Left, Gramsci has rarely been celebrated as a disabled role model, or a hero to the disability community. I found it very moving to see the relics of his life, just as I have always been inspired by the motto he chose: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.

It’s not hard to find a reason to go to Italy on holiday: the sun, the food and the culture are persuasive enough. But away from the tourist resorts and heritage sights, there are other reasons to celebrate, and experiences to learn from. In my ongoing quest to find the best places in the world for disabled people to live, Italy is a leading candidate. In the remote village where we stayed, there were ramps up to the supermarket and the post office, and at the train station, the man with the ramp was there at the right time and place. Even the Swiss don’t always get that right.

So this autumn, I’m wearing my Gramsci tee-shirt with pride, and dreaming of pecorino sardo (ewe’s milk cheese), cinghiale (wild boar), culingionis (ravioli) and of course, cannonau (red wine). Ciao, Sardinia ! Avanti popolo!


    • 1. At 3:03pm on 15 Oct 2009, Chris_Page wrote:

      All those achievements for Disabled people - yet Venice is still full of stepped bridges.

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    • 2. At 11:54pm on 15 Oct 2009, lyrogersle wrote:

      Thanks, Tom. Glad you had such a good time. Gramsci is fascinating, regardless of the color of his politics, and Italy has had a tradition of acceptance for generations, perhaps because, from what I have noticed, loved ones with disabilities tend to be included in families rather than shunned. When I was there a lot of the people I met lived in multi-generational or extended family situations. This is a model to be emulated.

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    • 3. At 2:50pm on 16 Oct 2009, BaggiesBob2 wrote:

      Gramsci was a good theorist, but his imprisonment meant he was isolated and took some political positions I am not sure he would've held otherwise.

      I'm not exactly sure why he should be viewed as "a hero of the disability community"; he was a person with an impairment who was a victim of fascism and he used his knowledge and skills to further socialist ideas. Is 'disability culture' simply a matter of embracing any Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to be impaired? I salute Gramsci for his theoretical work which has indirectly helped some disabled people's understanding of class struggle.

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