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The Great Gramsci

Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci

edited and translated by Quintin Hoare, by Geoffrey Nowell Smith
International Publishers, 483 pp., $4.25 (paper)

Letters from Prison

by Antonio Gramsci, selected, translated, and introduced by Lynne Lawner
Harper & Row, 275 pp., $10.00


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 the second half of the 1960s.

Gramsci, whose intellectual stature was immediately recognized, at any rate by those who read Italian, Marxists or not, thus appeared initially as a general essayist artificially separated (if only by the restrictions imposed on his reading and writing by the fascist jailers) from the active political leader. This was helpful in one way, unsatisfactory in another. It meant that he could be read with immediate interest by people who knew nothing about Italian Party affairs before 1926, though foreigners probably still have trouble adjusting to the intellectual context of a highly educated man formed in a culture and a period that were both extremely sophisticated and relatively provincial. Italian intellectual readers, of course, do not have this difficulty. On the other hand even they were bound to miss much of the connection between the controversies of the militant communist and the general observations of the isolated prisoner.

Nevertheless, the connection was in fact tacitly made by and through the Party, which was responsible for the version of Gramsci’s life and the selection of his work that appeared, and which imposed its “reading” of his theory. Togliatti, who claimed that the strategy of the Italian Communists was specifically “Gramscian,”7 though naturally also Leninist, tied his friend’s theories to postwar party policy and in doing so made them vulnerable to criticisms directed against that policy.

Initially there were few such criticisms, for in the extraordinary period after 1941 Party strategy appeared to be remarkably successful. The CP succeeded in establishing its leadership of the working class, which in turn led the nation in the armed struggle against fascism. It thus appeared to realize the Gramscian “hegemony.” The Party emerged leading a new “historic bloc”8 in post-fascist Italy, where capitalist power, though shored up by the US, seemed unstable or even provisional and temporary. Not least, the CP established an impressive position of leadership in Italian intellectual and cultural life. The new Risorgimento of the 1940s looked as though it might be the basis of a transition to socialism in Italy. In 1945 the Party refrained from seizing power by insurrection in the north, not only because that was probably impracticable, and even if practicable would have implied the break-up of a united Italy,9 but also, it may be suggested, because it seemed that the alternative stategy looked unusually promising.

After 1948 it became clear that it was not. A combination of reform and repression broke the militancy of the northern workers and the revolutionary upsurge of the southern peasants long enough to give the subsequent “economic miracle” of a flourishing northern capitalism the chance to lower the social temperature. The CP remained the largest party of its kind enjoying voluntary support, and continued to grow electorally, though at a modest rate. Nevertheless it had lost the initiative, and the Gramsci-Togliatti perspective—socialism as a consequence of national hegemony—faded. A socialist Italy seemed increasingly remote. From the left, CP policy looked very like some sort of reformism of the social-democratic type. Moreover, even if the Party had been right to avoid a simple “seizure of power” in 1945, critics might very well ask retrospectively whether in 1943-1945 it had not failed, in the interests of maintaining a common front of which it could not guarantee to maintain control, to press a more radical attack on those institutions which were, in effect, to push it into the political wilderness after 1948: the Church and the unreconstructed apparatus of the state.

Abroad, the increasing ideological independence of the Italian CP after 1956 made Gramsci more interesting. He began to be discussed and translated. Within Italy skepticism about Party policy implied taking a new look at the thinker in whose name it had been conducted. Some of the critics, who increasingly began to leave the CP or who expressed their views freely within or outside it, attempted to establish a non-Togliattian reading of Gramsci. Most were hostile to him because they were hostile to the Togliatti line, but all agreed that the official version of his life and work required revision.

The largest body of such criticism is concerned with Gramsci’s part in the early development of the CP, though it must be observed that the Party has done more than anyone to strip the layers of myth and dogma from its own history, at least since Togliatti himself initiated a realistic study of it.10 The nature of these historical revisions is summarized in the long introduction to the Prison Notebooks. Broadly speaking the sharpest critics have attempted to defend Amedeo Bordiga, the earliest pioneer and leader of the Party, against the “Turin group” which took over the leadership in 1923-1924 and kept it until Togliatti’s death. Bordiga’s historical priority and importance are undeniable, but it will take some powerful advocacy to persuade impartial observers that his gifts as a theoretician bear comparison to Gramsci’s, that he was in the same league as a practical politician with Togliatti, or for that matter that his policy had much to be said for it. Historians may well criticize the early hesitations and oscillations of Gramsci, both in his analysis of and attitude toward fascism, but Bordiga’s own much less complex views have only the virtue of simplicity (or the vice of sectarianism).

The critical investigation of Gramsci’s political career is perhaps less important than the evaluation of his ideas. This is a rather esoteric activity, given the fragmentary nature of the writings and their highly abstract and not always consistent terminology, designed partly for his own purposes, partly to fool the fascist jailers. When Gramsci writes about specific political issues which a contemporary Italian communist might recognize, intelligent guesswork helps, though it is difficult enough to follow a cooking recipe expressed entirely in general chemical principles even if one knows that it is supposed to tell us how to make pizza. On the other hand, it is not always clear when Gramsci’s generalities conceal concrete references, when they do not, when they are both specific and general, and to what exactly they may refer. The editors of the Prison Notebooks have done a splendid job of clarification, but have not eliminated all difficulties.

Two things are nevertheless clear about Gramsci’s thought. First—and to the sorrow of foreign readers unfamiliar with his intellectual content—Gramsci’s ideological background is that of the dominant Italian philosophy of the period, the Hegelianism of the Neapolitan school, and especially Benedetto Croce. The notebooks are in one sense a long, half-rebellious, half-admiring dialogue with this intellectual father-figure. Gramsci’s ideological road from the simple anticolonialist Sardinianism of the starving hunchbacked schoolboy to Marxism is not fully clear even from Fiori’s excellent and pathbreaking biography. Still, it seems clear that it owed little to the orthodoxies of pre-1914 Italian socialism, dominated as it was by the trinity Darwin-Spencer-Marx or to Kautskyan social democracy, whose inevitabilist evolutionism and determinism he passionately rejected.

Gramsci’s Marxism was homegrown on Hegelian-Crocean soil, inspired by the double experience of the poverty-stricken intellectual from an exploited island (who brought with him an instinctive understanding of backward peasantries and colonial peoples) and the student and socialist militant in the capital of the liberal bourgeoisie and the modern factory, Turin. Gramsci combined, as no other Italian Marxist did, the capacity to generalize both from the specific experience of the peasantry (there is no better guide to the social history of “primitive rebellion”) and that of industrial proletarians, whose factory organization he made into the keystone of an Italian soviet strategy. The October Revolution precipitated this ideological mixture. One might almost say that he finally came to Marx via Lenin, thus by-passing the normal intellectual progress of most contemporary Marxists. Since his interests were also those of a humanist academic—he entered politics as a philosopher-journalist, critic, and teacher—he also by-passed the phase of socio-economic analysis on which so many other Marxists cut their teeth.11 His revolutionism led him directly to philosophy and politics. Suitably enough his code name for Marxism in the notebooks is “the philosophy of praxis.”

  1. 1

    His Works began to be published shortly after the war by Einaudi of Turin, and eleven volumes have by now appeared. However, apart from criticisms of the editing of earlier volumes, the brevity and fragmentary nature of the writings make them difficult to consult, the indexing of each volume is inadequate (though there is a global index covering six volumes), and the explanatory apparatus is negligible.

  2. 2

    John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Stanford, 1967).

  3. 3

    G. Fiori, Antonio Gramsci, Life of a Revolutionary (Dutton, 1971), originally published in 1965. The translation by Tom Nairn is first-rate. For a fuller analytical account see the valuable Leonard O. Paggi, Antonio Gramsci e il Moderno Principe, Vol. I (Rome, 1970).

  4. 4

    There is some discussion about the extent to which his heterodoxy after 1930—which was at least suspected among dissident Italian Marxists—was taken cognizance of by the Party.

  5. 5

    The selection has been made from the full and adequate edition of Elsa Fubini and Sergio Caprioglio (Lettere dal Carcere, Turin, 1965).

  6. 6

    Volumes were issued in the Einaudi edition in 1954, 1958, and 1960; a further collection was published by S. Caprioglio (Antonio Gramsci, Scritti 1915-1921; Quaderni de “Il, Corpo,” Milan, 1968).

  7. 7

    Cf. P. Togliatti, “Il leninismo nel pensiero e nell’azione di A. Gramsci” and “Gramsci e il leninismo” in Studi Gramsciani (Atti del convegno tenuto a Roma nei giorni 11-13 gennaio 1958), Rome, 1958.

  8. 8

    Togliatti sometimes uses this term in a somewhat more restricted sense of “political bloc” than Gramsci—cf, Studi Gramsciani loc. cit. p. 28.

  9. 9

    Why there was no insurrection has been discussed frankly by Italian communist leaders in Rinascità, January 29 and February 19, 1971.

  10. 10

    By introducing a frank edition of the correspondence of various Communist leaders during 1923-1924 in 1960 (La formazione del gruppo dirigente del PCI, Rome, 1962). The Party since the war always permitted and indeed, encouraged free discussion, though in the Stalin period it was obliged to proceed with some caution.

  11. 11

    There is no equivalent in his career to Lenin’s study of Russian capitalism or Rosa Luxemburg’s of Polish industrialization.

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