Migration and Racism: Lessons From Antonio Gramsci, an interview with Peter Mayo

Italian political theorist and activist Antonio Gramsci, who died eighty-four years ago, in an Italy that was a far cry from the multiethnic country it is today, provides much grist for the mill when it comes to a complex analysis of migration and racism. He underscores the need to interpret migratory movements through complex analyses. This entails a study of not simply the situation of migrants in the receiving country or region but also their place of origin.

In this sense, the studies of Maltese academic, Peter Mayo, regarding Gramsci and educational policies, provide insightful views with regard to the topic. “The discourse on migration in Gramsci is central to national or ‘national popular’ life in Italy and the ‘southern question’. Gramsci teaches us that it is necessary to study immigration through an analysis of social differences in the contexts of origin and not simply (or simplistically) in the current context of settlement, short term or for the long haul. This applies to immigrants who travelled north of the peninsula in Gramsci’s time and, more recently, those who migrate from Africa to Europe. To avoid stereotypes and inappropriate representations, it is necessary to understand the context of origin in all its complexity. What are the conditions that have led thousands of people to leave their homeland and move elsewhere? “, says Peter Mayo.

With Gramsci, it is necessary to consider the link between emigration and subordination – “Gramsci spoke of a new subaltern bloc (a simple alliance could be ephemeral) consisting of the working and peasant classes. A bloc must be firmly rooted as if it were a natural alignment. Today there is a need to analyze and deepen the knowledge of social classes at multi-ethnic and multi-cultural levels. Gramsci helps us in this by shedding light on Arab and Islamic contributions to so-called ‘Western civilization’”.

A naive or stereotypical account of migration can provide the ideological underpinnings for mass racist political positions “Ursula Apitzsch, in a chapter in Solidarity without Borders. Gramscian perspectives on migration and civil society (Pluto Press, 2016), edited by Ó.G. Agustín and Martin Bak Jørgensen, dwells on Gramsci’s reflections on the culturalist vision of migration, especially insofar as it applies to Francesco Perri’s novel, Gli Emigranti (The Emigrants). Gramsci’s criticism is directed at one of those he considers to feature among ‘Father Bresciani’s progeny ‘ – Fr. Bresciani, a Jesuit, wrote a historical novel in which he interpreted the outcomes of the 1848 revolutions as Catholic acts of liberation. Bresciani’s ‘progeny’, according to Gramsci, are those who, as regards migration to foreign lands, place the greatest emphasis on the context of settlement and almost no emphasis whatsoever on the complex and differentiated context of origin. Gramsci affirms that every reform has its counter-reformation, and this applies also to literature.”

Mayo remarks that “In Perri’s novel, analyzed by Gramsci in Quaderno 23, the peasants in a fictitious village Pandure occupy the lands, according to the laws established by Joachim Murat, but are chased away by the carabinieri (Italian police). Some younger farmers emigrate to the United States. The conditions in the context of origin that have forced people to leave in search of new pastures are a crucial feature that Perri ignores.”

Mayo adds: “Gramsci states that Perri does not provide a rigorous vision of historical events, has a superficial knowledge of Calabrian peasant life and falls into the trap of homogenizing people and groups, perpetuating stereotypes. ” This stricture on his part remains relevant today, considering that the analysis of migration often continues to be devoid of a historical dimension.

“This trend leads to not seeing industrial underdevelopment as a case of ‘internal colonialism’ from the North with regard to the South. According to Gramsci, a historically rigorous and complex analysis of migrants’ contexts of origin is necessary. This necessitates our relating cultural issues to economic ones in any analysis of this sort. One of the merits of Gramscian analyses is precisely that of considering the economy a key aspect of life, while avoiding economic reductionism. Overlooking the socio-economic perspective of history obscures the role of political and economic factors in cultural change. As Stuart Hall points out, culture interacts with other variables and, although the economy does not determine everything, it still remains an important factor that should not be underestimated. ” There continues to be a proliferation of essays, books and other contributions on migration. “Works like Bilal. Viaggiare Lavorare Morire da Clandestini (Bilal. Travelling, Work, Dying as Clandestine Migrants, Milan: BUR/Rizzoli, 2007), by journalist Fabrizio Gatti, help to shed light on the long trajectory involved in migration from Africa to southern Italy. This had made headlines in Italy in the Millennium’s first decade, and rightly so as it is a very revealing account. There are of course others, more recently plays staged in Britain by its National Theatre such as The Barber Shop Chronicles, Small Island and Les Blancs. I would like to point out a recent work in England and Scotland, What Shadows, a play by Chris Hannan, based on a speech on immigration, delivered by British MP Enoch Powell to a meeting at the Conservative Political Centre Birmingham, United Kingdom, in April, 1968. This is a striking piece of work, probably a far cry from the fictional works published by those Gramsci calls ‘Fr Bresciani’s progeny’. The play focuses on the situation of immigrants in the UK, especially second generation immigrants. It highlights the ramifications of that speech in a complex way. A Gramscian reflection, however, would have required some indication of the living conditions in the former colonies, historically analyzed in a rigorous and complex way. What led many people to flee their colonial contexts and lead a UK politician and classics scholar to evoke Ovid in what became widely known as his ‘rivers of blood’ speech? The three National Theatre plays I cited earlier take us some way to answering this question.”

Every political issue has an educational question at its roots. This also applies to migration: “In addition to the literary responses to the migratory phenomenon, Gramsci criticizes the idea, floated around at the time, that there should be teaching about different ethnic cultures in schools. He feared that cultures would be represented in a reductionist and monolithic way, without any knowledge of the contexts in question, including the variegated contexts of the migrants’ provenance. He feared that these subjects, also to be tackled in teacher-education programs, would provide a distorted view of these cultures. As Apitszch wrote, Gramsci’s concern was that students and teachers would be exposed to a trivializing account, reaffirming a simplistic and folkloristic image, whereby other ways of living, different from that of the mainstream, would be made, in Gramsci’s words, to appear bizarre, at best a quirk. Teacher-education of this type can help distort one’s sense of diversity. My reading of Gramsci, in this regard, is that, contrary to this flawed approach, it is necessary to foster an educational process that does justice to these cultures in all their complexity, cultures that should be presented, studied, analyzed in a manner that represents them as organic and dynamic.” This would guard schools from abetting racism, rather than undermining it. Teaching about different cultures through misrepresentation can help consolidate the ideological basis for racism rather than contribute to destroying it.

Peter Mayo agrees: “Yes, and this affirms the contemporary relevance of Gramsci’s thought for debates around race, racialization and ethnicity, among many other issues. Stuart Hall, a Gramsci admirer, certainly seems to have thought so, judging from his use of the Sardinian thinker and political strategist in his work on the subject.”