A look at the lives and legacies of two of the twentieth century's great revolutionary thinkers, writers, and activists.
From within the confines of an oppressive regime, revolutionaries are oftentimes born and, all-too-often, are silenced. Yet there remain a select few who, whether through legend, martyrdom, or both, are able to affect change for many years after they are gone. Italian writer and political activist Antonio Gramsci and South African anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko are two such revolutionaries; and, while their lives and the conditions under which they lived were very different, these two men shared many commonalities which have earned them legendary status in the pages of history.
Gramsci and Biko each embarked on their political careers as early in life as their university days. Gramsci, though a brilliant and successful student, forfeited his scholarship at the University of Turin in 1915 in order to pursue his political career. As a student, he had earned an incredible reputation as a journalist, and within a year of leaving university, he became co-editor of the Piedmont edition of Avanti!, the official organ of the Socialist Party. By 1917, he was elected to the Socialist Party’s Provisional Committee and had taken seat as editor of Il Grido del Popolo. At the age of 28, he had become a well-known writer and speaker. A writer of conviction and a man of great iniative, he founded and ran several activist newspapers before the age of 30. He was a noted Marxist, and fought for worker’s councils, education for the poor, and the rights of the working class.
Biko, too, was actively involved in politics while still in school. A student at the University of Natal, he initially joined the National Union of South African Students, a multi-racial organization, but, with the belief that minority students were in need of their own organization, he later went on to found the South African Students’ Organization in 1968. By 1972, he was elected president of the Black People’s Convention and, by the age of 26, had gone on to gain national recognition as a speaker and political activist.
Like so many activists during controversial times, both Gramsci and Biko faced severe oppression at the hands of their respective governing bodies. In 1926, following an alleged assassination attempt against Mussolini, the fascist Italian government, irrespective of Gramsci’s status of parliamentary immunity, arrested him. Following the prosecutor’s convincing statement, “For twenty years, we must stop this brain from functioning,” Gramsci was sentenced to 5 years of confinement and, immediately following, 20 years of imprisonment. Due to the poor conditions in the prison system, Gramsci suffered from declining health and, just after gaining conditional freedom, died prematurely at the age of 46. The 30 notebooks he kept during his imprisonment were later published under the title The Prison Notebooks, and are today considered some of the foremost important documents in the theories of Western Marxism.
Biko faced similar persecution. In 1973, at the height of Apartheid, Biko was banned, forbidden to travel outside of certain areas of the country and restricted from speaking in public; it was also illegal for anyone to quote anything he said. These restrictions did not stop him, however, as he went on to found several grassroots organizations from the area of his confinement. He founded a community clinic called Zanempilo, as well as an organization supporting ex-political prisoners and their families, named the Zimele Trust Fund. Additionally, Biko founded the Njwaxa Leather-Works Project and the Ginsberg Education Fund, and was instrumental in organizing protests contributing toward the Soweto Uprising of 1976. These well-known moves caused him to be heavily targeted by the police, and in 1977, he was arrested at a roadblock under the Terrorism Act Number 83 of 1967. While in transport to Pretoria Prison, Biko was stripped naked and severely beaten by the guards. He died of head trauma, although his captors later went on to claim that his death was a result of a “hunger strike.” No one was ever prosecuted for the murder, but Biko’s funeral was attended by hundreds and word of his death exposed the frightening realities of Apartheid to people all around the world.
Both Gramsci and Biko founded organizations which would go on to become pillars of social change for the times in which they lived; Gramsci helped in the founding and leadership of the Communist Party of Italy during the reign of Mussolini’s fascist regime, while Biko founded the Black Consciousness Movement during the time of Apartheid. Both men are known for their activism and are said to have revolutionized the societies in which they were oppressed. Gramsci is widely recognized as one of the most influential Marxists of the twentieth Century. Biko, who coined the popular phrase, “Black Is Beautiful,” is regarded around the world as one of the foremost developers of the Black Consciousness Movement and one of the leading activists in the struggle to restore African consciousness. His work has extended far beyond the borders of Africa to inspire blacks around the world in the fights for liberation and equality, and has been an inspiration to millions in preserving the African cultural identity.
The framework of an oppressive regime lends itself to revolutionary thought; however, putting those thoughts into action and activism requires a greater bravery than most men possess. Antonio Gramsci and Steve Biko are examples of the kind of revolutionary the world needs in order to turn the wheels of much-needed social change. Fighting until the end of their short lives, both men achieved martyrdom and their legacies have gone on to inspire millions. The courageous spirits of Gramsci and Biko serve as a reminder to us all of the power of activism and the desperate need for revolution, then and now.
1st February 2008