The Great Gramsci

Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci

edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and 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. 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. 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, his work as a leading …

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