Antonio Gramsci 1921

The grimace of Gwynplaine

Firt Published: L'Ordine Nuovo, 30 August 1921;
Translated: by Ben W.

Each time that politicians order an operation against the working class, the first to rejoice (or rather, the first to show outward signs of their satisfaction) are not the ‘big shots’ – not the police superintendents or the top officers of the Regia Guardia and the Carabinieri – but those in the very lowest ranks of these institutions.

These lowly state agents have their origins in the most backward layers of the proletariat. They are compelled to join up by extreme poverty, or by the hope of finding a better life once they've left behind the fields or the workshops – driven by the belief that they can become something more than a poor peasant banished to a hamlet in the back of beyond, or a labourer exhausted by the daily grind of the workshop.

These people despise (after having deserted their ranks) the working class with a fury that surpasses all imagination.

During a recent search of the offices of L'Ordine Nuovo, one of them (a detective or a plain clothes Carabinieri, I'm not sure) found a simple revolver. “Here are the weapons!,” he screamed triumphantly.

He was amazed that despite their best efforts they failed to find anything more compromising in our paper’s offices.

A few minutes later, another police officer, hearing an exchange of words between the superintendent and one of our editors, exclaimed: “We'll end up arresting everyone! We'll arrest them all!” With this thought his mouth formed a smile so wicked it would stun anyone not accustomed to this type of human fraternity.

I understood then why in the barracks and in the police stations the Carabinieri and the police officers strive to outdo each other in their beatings of arrested workers, and why they rejoice in their torture.

It is a hatred of long standing. The agents of the state assigned to the maintenance of ‘public order’ sense all around them the contempt that the entire working class has for these renegades – for those that have switched sides, for the mercenaries that devote all their energy to suffocating any movement of the proletariat.

To the contempt of the proletariat is added that of a large part of the bourgeoisie, who observe with a suspicious eye these wretches in the police force. Why? Because that is the fate of all mercenaries: the contempt and hatred of their enemies is almost always accompanied by that of their masters.

And it’s natural, it’s only human, that in the soul of these poorly paid people – who don’t always manage to get what they need in a life full of hardships and privations, who feel enclosed by a wall that separates them from other men, which almost casts them out of society – hatred germinates, and cruelty puts down roots.

It is a hatred against those that were previously their brothers, their work colleagues – who they now despise with greater intensity because of that shared background. They find a thousand different ways to make this manifest with their cruelty. For these people, it is a joy and a triumph to arrest a worker. To beat this worker and rough them up is a laugh, and to lock them in jail is an act of sweet revenge.

Only in the moments in which they have a man in their clutches – and know they can choose to put an end to his liberty and well-being – do they feel possessed of strength, and a sense that they are superior to their peers.

This delight in apprehending another man is not founded in a consciousness of serving the law, or of defending the integrity of the state. It is instead a small, mean, personal satisfaction. It is the pleasure of being able to say “I'm stronger than you!.”

What other joys can they experience? How many of them are capable of starting a family, without their life of hardships becoming a life of tribulations?

Isn’t it true that for many of these turncoats who have deserted the proletariat life has very little to offer? At most they may receive a humble proposition from a street-walker, in search of protection.

We saw them ourselves a few days ago when they came to our editorial offices. Many of them, judging by their clothes, could easily have been mistaken for workers in dire poverty. They were certainly humbly – more than humbly – dressed. Not only so they could mix with workers in order to spy on them and eavesdrop, but also because they could not afford to dress otherwise.

They regard the real workers with hatred – those who wrestle with repression and hunger, and who strive anxiously for their liberation. But they also understand, and feel, that those who fight are always superior to those who serve.

When these agents handcuffed the young people who were defending the paper of our party – the paper of our class, they experienced a fleeting victory and they laughed. But it wasn’t a spontaneous, cheerful laugh. It was the laugh of those who feel trapped – by rage, by the contempt of others, by their lives and by a destiny which they are unable to escape. That laugh was the grimace of Gwynplaine.

Translator’s note: Gwynplaine is a character in Victor Hugo’s novel ‘The man who laughs’. As a child, Gwynplaine’s face is mutilated into the likeness of a clown’s mask, so that he can be exhibited in freak shows. His expression is a grotesque, and perpetual, grin.