Piero Sraffa contributed a number of translations, and notes to readers on foreign publications, to the first Ordine Nuovo (1919–20).footnote10 At the time he was a student at Turin University, and having been introduced to Gramsci by Professor Umberto Cosmo—who had taught him at high school—he quickly became friends with him.footnote11 However, his own contributions to the review remained anonymous. Sraffa’s name does not even appear under the letter which was reproduced in large part and answered by Gramsci in Ordine Nuovo, 1–15 April 1924, (third series, No. ¾)—the letter, in fact, which is the main subject of this article.footnote12 Gramsci referred to Sraffa as ‘an old subscriber and friend of l’Ordine Nuovo’, and in his reply as ‘our friend S.’. Sraffa’s letter continues his private correspondence with Gramsci, in which the two had begun to discuss the existing political situation and the line of action of the Communist Party. Not far off were the elections of 6 April 1924, called by the fascist government on the basis of the tyrannically restrictive clauses that are well enough known.

‘It seems to me’, the letter begins, ‘that our disagreement is especially of a chronological order. I accept a great deal of what you write to me, but as solutions to problems which will arise after the fall of fascism. It is very useful to study them and prepare oneself to confront them; but the problems of today are very different. Let us discuss this. I stand by my opinion that the working class is totally absent from political life. And I can only conclude that the Communist Party, today, can do nothing or almost nothing positive. The situation is strikingly similar to that of 1916–17; and so too is my state of mind, which you say is shared by other friends who write to you. My political opinions are unchanged—or worse still, I have become fixed in them; just as up till 1917, I was fixed in the pacifist socialism of 1914–15—which I was shaken out of by the discovery, made after Caporetto and the Russian Revolution of November, that guns were precisely in the hands of the worker-soldiers. Unfortunately, the analogy does not extend so far. But just as at that time, although we knew rationally that the War would have to end one day, we all “felt” that it would never end and could not see how peace could come—so it is today with fascism. It is quite easy for me to accept your opinion that the state of affairs cannot last, and that major events are imminent: it is perfectly logical, but one cannot “feel” it or “see” it.’

Sraffa’s letter goes on to describe the fragmentation process whereby the working class was effectively being reduced to an ‘individual’ and ‘private’ struggle ‘to preserve a job, a wage, a house and a family’. This struggle was leading to the very negation of the party and the trade union. Generally speaking, ‘the urgent question, which conditions all others, is that of “freedom” and “order”: the others will come later, but for now they cannot even interest the workers’. ‘Now, I do not think’, he continues, ‘that a relaxation of fascist pressure can be secured by the Communist Party; today is the hour of the democratic opposition, and I think it is necessary to let them proceed and even help them. What is necessary, first of all, is a “bourgeois revolution”, which will then allow the development of a working-class politics. Basically, it seems to me that—just like during the War—there is nothing to be done except to wait for it to pass. I would like to know your opinion on this subject. I do not feel that my own is incompatible with being a Communist (though a non-active one). For the function which I attribute to the “lefts” will be accomplished very quickly, I believe. And it would certainly not be right for the Communist Party to compromise itself with them, since in any case it could not make any real contribution to a campaign of such a kind. But I also think that it is an error to set oneself openly against them, and to spend too much time (as l’Unit` does, for example) deriding bourgeois “freedom”. Fair or foul, it is what the workers feel most keenly the need for today, and it is the precondition for any further advance . . .’

‘The Communist Party cannot—because of the contradiction it would involve—wage a campaign for freedom and against dictatorship in general. But it commits a grave error when it gives the impression it is sabotaging an alliance of the opposition forces—as it did with its sudden declaration that it would participate in the electoral struggle, when the other parties pretended to threaten abstention. Its function, for now, is that of a coach-fly, since afterwards it will be necessary for a mass party to have distinguished itself in the struggle against fascism: again just as in the War.footnote13 Meanwhile, it would be a good thing to take advantage of this experience to prepare a concrete programme for afterwards: then, certainly, the Southern question and that of unity will be in the foreground. But not today.’

Whilst agreeing with Gramsci that fascism was disintegrating the unity of the State, and that this was ‘a topical and burning question’, Sraffa essentially reduced it to a problem of public order, rather than a social one: ‘The remedy will lie in an efficient police-force independent of the local chieftains . . .’ ‘I was really moved’, Sraffa concludes, ‘at the sight of the first issue of l’Ordine Nuovo. I hope that, as in 1919, it will succeed in finding the slogan which is lacking today and which is needed. I hope too that it will be able to draw a balance-sheet of the past: not to determine the blame or merit of individuals or parties; not to repeat “I told you so”; above all, not to draw a balance-sheet of your enemies, but rather of yourselves and your own comrades—which is more useful, and alone can make experience useful. You certainly need great courage to carry out an autopsy on yourselves, but the old Ordine Nuovo will perhaps have that courage.’

Let us now sum up the two large columns and more of Gramsci’s reply. He begins by stating that ‘this letter contains all the necessary and sufficient elements to liquidate a revolutionary organization such as our party is and must be. And yet, this is not the intention of our friend S., who even though he is not a member, even though he is only on the fringes of our movement and our propaganda, has faith in our party and considers it the only one capable of permanently resolving the problems posed and the situation created by fascism.’ After other preliminary remarks, Gramsci goes on : ‘If our party did not find for today independent solutions of its own to the overall, Italian problems, the classes which are its natural base would turn en masse towards those political currents which give some solution to these problems that is not the fascist one. If that occurred, the fact would have an immense historical significance. It would mean that the present is not a revolutionary socialist period, but we are still living in an epoch of bourgeois capitalist development . . . Then, indeed, we too would face the problem of taking up not an independent revolutionary position, but that of a mere radical fraction of the constitutional opposition, called by history to realize the “bourgeois revolution”. . .’ ‘S. himself does not believe this, because he writes that the task of the constitutional opposition will be chronologically very brief, without any direct development other than towards a proletarian revolution.’

But a mistake typical of Sraffa’s letter is the approval he gives to the Italian Socialist Party’s wartime stance. For its position was ‘an essentially opportunist tactic’ dictated by the conception of ‘party unity above all else, even above the revolution’; and kept in being after the War, it continued to be a ‘tactic of passivity’, ‘neutralism’ and ‘unity for unity’s sake’. Yet its results right up till 1924 had been ‘permanent internal crises and split after split’.