‘I hate the indifferent’

Two soldi – that is to say, one tenth of a lira – was the very popular price of La città futura (‘the future city’), a recruiting pamphlet in newspaper form distributed in February of 1917 by the Piedmontese youth federation of the Socialist Party. The publication had been entirely written and compiled by then 26 year-old Antonio Gramsci and is considered the most coherent expression of his early idealist phase. However the extract I’ve translated for today’s post won’t tell you much about the development of Gramsci’s political thought or his laborious conversion to materialism, for it is an invective – or, if you prefer, an impassioned civil oration designed to wake the reader from the torpor that characterised in his view the Italian spirit.

The target of the piece is therefore indifference, which Gramsci defines as the failure to be partisan. And if partisan is the noun then the verb, the doing word, is parteggiare, literally to take sides, but I’ve chosen to translate it as to take part. The etymology backs me up on this, for that ‘part’ is also at the root of the Italian partigiano and the French (then English) partisan, reminding us than to be active, to be political means to pick a side. Perhaps that is what is truly peculiar about Gramsci’s invective: that he won’t tell the reader which side to pick, whereas the rest of the pamphlet – an explicit work of propaganda – is punctuated with entreaties for the young reader to join the nearest socialist youth fascio. Another translator’s note may be required concerning the word città, which I cannot translate with anything other than city but has the broader meaning of society, much like the word citizen is not reserved to urban dwellers. However Gramsci is fond of his imagery to the point of making the city seem quite a literal construct, as you shall see.

I should point out that this is in many respects not a great piece of writing. It is also no more interesting than other chapters of La città futura (the one about order and disorder as political categories is more relevant to us; the one about socialist propaganda being the justification for literacy in the national language more arresting), but I keep going back to what it would have signified in February of 1917. The war far from over, the czar in Russia about to be deposed, a ferment amongst the workers of Turin that would erupt in six months’ time only to be met with bloody repression; perhaps above all the sense of old orders crumbling, everywhere: to take sides at this time would have meant to truly participate in history. A sense that may seem lost today, but is not beyond recovery.


The Indifferent

 By Antonio Gramsci

 (Original Italian text.)

I hate the indifferent. I believe, as Frederich Hebbel did, that ‘living means being partisan’. There can’t be men [sic] who are men alone and exist outside of the city. To really live means to be a citizen and to take part.  Indifference is abulia, is parasitism, is cowardice. Indifference isn’t life. This is why I hate the indifferent.

Indifference is the dead weight of history.  It is the millstone around the innovator’s neck; the inert matter in which the brightest enthusiasms are drowned; the marsh that surrounds the old city and defends it better than its strongest walls, better than the valour of its warriors, because it swallows the assailants within its murky vortices, it decimates them, it disheartens them, and sometimes it makes them desist from the heroic deed.

Indifference is a powerful force in history. It operates passively, but it operate nonetheless. It is fate; it is that upon which you cannot count; it is the thing that disrupts the programme, that upsets the best laid plans; it is the brute matter that rises up against intelligence and smothers it. The events that occur, the evil that befalls us all, the possible good that a heroic act (of universal value) can generate, are not due to the initiative of the few who are active, but to the indifference, the absenteeism of the many. The things that occur do not occur because some people exercise their will, but because the multitude abdicates its own will and lets things be, allowing for knots to form that it will take a sword to unfasten, for laws to be passed that it will take a revolt to abrogate, for men to rise to power that it will take a mutiny to overthrow. The fate that appears to dominate history is nothing but the deceptive appearance of this indifference, of this absenteeism. Events grow in the shadows. Few hands, subject to no oversight, weave the collective cloth, and the multitude ignores it all, because it doesn’t care. The destinies of an epoch are manipulated according to the narrow views, the immediate goals, the ambitions and personal passions of small activist groups, and the multitude ignores it all, because it doesn’t care. But the events that have matured come to fruition; the cloth woven in the shadow reaches completion: and then it seems like it was fate that overcame everything and everyone, giving the appearance that history is nothing but a vast natural phenomenon, an eruption, an earthquake of which everyone’s a victim: those who willed it to happen and those who didn’t; those who knew and those who didn’t; those who were active and those who remained indifferent. Now the indifferent become angry, would like to escape the consequences and for it to seem clear that they didn’t plan for this, that they weren’t responsible. Some weep pitifully, others curse obscenely, but none or few ask themselves: had I, too, done my duty, had I tried to exercise my will or offer my counsel, would any of this have happened? But none or few blame themselves for their indifference, their scepticism, the failure to lend their strength and their work to the organised citizens who strove to guard against that misfortune or to reach a common goal.

The majority of these, instead, when the events have run their course, prefer to talk of ideological failures, of plans in disarray and other pleasantries. They renew then their withdrawal from any responsibility. It’s not for want of occasionally seeing things clearly, or being able to some time present magnificent solutions to the most urgent problem, or to problems that, whilst requiring considerable time and preparation, are just as urgent. However these solutions remain magnificently infecund, and this contribution to collective life reveals itself as lacking any moral spark; it’s a product of intellectual curiosity, not of a sharp sense of historical responsibility that demands everyone to be active in life, not allowing for agnosticism and indifference of any kind.

I hate the indifferent also because I’m annoyed by their whining of eternal innocents. I demand that they account for how they have fulfilled the duty that life has bestowed upon them, and bestows upon them every day; that they account for what they have done and above all for what they haven’t done. And I feel that I can be ruthless, not waste my pity, not share with them my tears. I am partisan. I live, and feel already in the vigorous consciences of my side the pulsating work of the future city that my side is building. In this city the social chain does not burden the few. In this city every thing that happens isn’t the product of chance or fate, but of the intelligent work of the citizens. In this city there are none who sit at the window looking at the few who toil and bleed themselves dry; none who sit at the window, lurking, hoping to enjoy the meagre fruits of that activity, and demean those who toiled and bled themselves dry for of how little they have achieved.

I live. I am partisan. This is why I hate those who don’t take part. This is why I hate the indifferent.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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    1. It’s quite peculiar, I agree. The early Gramsci is very different from the imprisoned Gramsci, which is the Gramsci everyone knows.

      It pays to remember too that he was specifically trying to recruit young people here. And those people – many of whom he’d have to assume could not read, and would have the essay read to them – were used to wartime rhetoric.

  1. I find myself in agreement with Gramsci here regarding political apathy which is highly relevant for out polity. But as with any call to a politics of action, I am continuously disillusioned by our persistent political malaise. How do you get the so-called multitude to even contemplate such a call in the context of the prevailing ideology which even today seems so absolute? Cynically, it seems to me that the only time significant portions of society become politicised is when the proverbial hip-pocket is threatened.

  2. To me, it almost sounds like the kind of berating of the apathetic masses you sometimes get these days. ‘You people are sheep. You are brainwashed, etc.’
    Would it have had those connotations at the time?
    As you say, it’s striking he doesn’t tell people which side to pick, almost as if he doesn’t care what they do, so long as they do somethng.

  3. The side – meaning ‘our side’, the one that is building the future city – is clearly labelled in the rest of the pamphlet, although it is just possible that Gramsci might have included amongst his targets some fellow party members, that they too might been numbered amongst the indifferent. A little over two years later he helped found the Communist Party, of course, so that was another taking of sides.

    As to whether contemporaries might have read the piece as a generic complaint against the apathetic masses, it’s hard to say. There is an uncomfortable whiff of pro-intervention rhetoric, although it’s possible that Gramsci might have wanted to redirect it towards a different goal. I really can’t help myself from translating the piece on illiteracy though, which is also more than a little scathing of the national character.


    Why are there still so many illiterates in Italy? Because in Italy there are too many people who devote their life solely to the village and the family. The need to learn Italian is not felt because dialect is sufficient for village and family life, and conversations in one’s vernacular are the sole medium of all social relationships.

    Literacy isn’t a need, therefore becomes a torment forced upon us by tyrants. In order for literacy to be promoted it would be necessary for collective life to become more fervent and include an ever greater number of citizens, thereby creating a sense of the need, the necessity of literacy and of language.

    Literacy has benefited from socialist propaganda more than from all the laws on compulsory education.

    Law is an imposition: it can force you to attend school, but it can’t force you to learn, nor, once you have learned, can it stop you from forgetting. Socialist propaganda immediately awakes the consciousness that people aren’t mere individuals caught in a small circle of immediate interests (the village and the family), but citizens of a larger world who need to share with other citizens their ideas, their hopes, their pains. Culture and literacy now have a purpose, and so long as this purpose lives in our conscience, the love of knowledge will overcome.

    It is a sacrosanct truth, of which socialists can be proud: illiteracy will be vanquish altogether only when socialism will vanquish it, because socialism is the only ideal that can turn into citizens, in the best and whole sense of the word, all Italians who currently do nothing but pursue their personal interests, and live for no other purpose than to consume food.

      1. This text on illiteracy (and the social and political importance of cultural literacies) still speaks to us as it recognises some fundamental responsibilities: to the un- and under- employed and represented, to non-citizens and to all of those whose civil liberties are diminished or annihilated by a current world order.

        Worth including then.

  4. I really love the way that Gramsci is aligning political apathy and passivity- but it’s almost as though he acknowledges passivity as being somewhat of an “active” force in itself;

    “it is the brute matter that rises up against intelligence and smothers it”

    I also really liked the way he observes the state of things as being merely a result of complacency- I think I agree that this is a pathology of society which isn’t historically specific.

    “The things that occur do not occur because some people exercise their will, but because the multitude abdicates its own will and lets things be, allowing for knots to form that it will take a sword to unfasten, for laws to be passed that it will take a revolt to abrogate, for men to rise to power that it will take a mutiny to overthrow. ”

    When we look at atrocities of simply things we don’t like, they all seem to emerge from people giving up on causes.

    I really liked this article- I think it’s overall message has something to say more about individuals and their relationship with the larger social collective. In the same way that we have a responsibility to be active individuals, we have a responsibility to be active politically. Regardless of your “location” on the political spectrum, expressing oneself politically would create a very honest dialectic, and a society more tailored to the real and conscious needs of the individual and larger units.

    And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with questioning the degree to which people ARE brainwashed or lulled into some state of uncaring. Even a feeling as though people can’t make a difference or feeling dislocated from movements in general is a problem that should be actively addressed rather than something kicked underfoot…

    Although I do appreciate the careful context you lent to the article.

  5. “it’s almost as though he acknowledges passivity as being somewhat of an “active” force in itself;”

    Yes, that’s my favourite idea as well. I’m also drawn to the overt moral tension not just of this essay but of the whole pamphlet, similar to what one finds much later in the wonderful letters to his sons.

    1. I think this element – the question of ‘activity’/the ‘active’ – makes it particularly Gramscian. I think you can see the connection with Gramsci’s later positions, so I don’t find it that surprising a piece, really. But it’s interesting.

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