Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci
Letters from Prison
Antonio Gramsci, probably the most original communist thinker produced in the twentieth-century West, has until recently been virtually inaccessible to non-Italians, and not very accessible even to Italians.1 Anyone who reads only English has hitherto had to rely chiefly on some frankly inadequate textual selections, on the usual scatterings of articles in left-wing journals, and, more than anything else, on John M. Cammett’s most useful book of 1967.2 The situation is now radically changed with the publication of Giuseppe Fiori’s pioneer biography3 and, above all, with the exemplary edition of a selection from the Prison Notebooks by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. We can now see Gramsci as a man rather than as a shadow. But, as he himself would have observed, men can only be understood in and through their politics.
When Gramsci died in 1937, shortly after his release as a hopelessly sick man after ten years of fascist prison, he was known to the wider world only as one of the numerous martyrs of the international communist movement, of whose existence the public was periodically reminded by their death or execution. He had been the leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1924 until his arrest. Thereafter his career as a politician was at an end, and his isolation was such that it may actually have been possible to conceal his deviations from the watchful eyes of those Comintern officials who had no friendliness for the Italian CP. This made possible his posthumous career as a Marxist theoretician, for though the guardians of orthodoxy were suspicious—he did not receive an official Russian imprimatur until 1958—his writings were tolerated as a concession to the national pride of what was, after the war, the most important communist party in the Western world.4 Gramsci as a political thinker and strategist meant nothing, except to the tiny group of Italian Communist leaders (which fortunately included his friend and admirer Palmiro Togliatti) and to his personal friends.
Gramsci’s martyrdom is relevant to his subsequent fame, for it was the Letters from Jail, first published in an incomplete edition in 1947 and now finally selected and translated into English by Lynne Lawner with a lucid and useful introduction of fifty-seven pages,5 that captured the reading public. What gripped readers was not only, as Lawner says, “one of the significant works of twentieth-century Italian literature,” but also the exemplary story of suffering and resistance by the small, crippled, sick revolutionary from a poverty-stricken Sardinian background, whose brain, as Mussolini said, had to be stopped from functioning. Before death stopped it, Gramsci had filled the equivalent of 4,000 typescript pages in the notebooks (published in six volumes, 1948-1951). They form the bulk of his theoretical writings and with the addition of an essay on “The Southern Question,” virtually all that was available until the 1960s. For though the publication of his juvenilia and precommunist writings went ahead,6 his work as a leading communist remained uncollected until…
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