Paul Anderson, review of Selections from Cultural Writings by Antonio Gramsci (Lawrence and Wishart, £6.95), Tribune, 24 April 1987

Antonio Gramsci died 50 years ago at the age of 46, after more than a decade of imprisonment in fascist Italy. The “crime” for which he was imprisoned was communism. He was a founder of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1921, and its leader from 1924 to his arrest (and its near-complete suppression) in 1926.

By the time of his imprisonment he had established a reputation as one of the Italian left’s most incisive thinkers. But his current intellectual standing is based largely on the contents of more than 30 school exercise books he filled with notes while in prison.

The major historical reason for interest in these Prison Notebooks is that an interpretation of some of their passages by Palmiro Togliatti, the post-war leader of the PCI, provided him with the intellectual justification for the parliamentary gradualist course on which he set the PCI — a course that would lead eventually to the “Eurocommunism” of Enrico Berlinguer’s PCI in the seventies.

Togliatti rightly saw that the sudden insurrectionary seizure of power by the classical Leninist party was not on the agenda in Italy, but at the same time sought to make this partial abandonment of Leninism legitimate in Leninist terms. Gramsci posthumously provided the means.

Gramsci had been an exemplary communist intellectual (a martyr, no less) who had never uttered a public word of criticism of the Comintern’s lines. And yet he had argued the heterodox position that, in the developed west, where the ruling class rules more by acquiescence or consent of the ruled than by force, communists should fight not a rapid “war of manoeuvre” to smash the bourgeois state apparatus (as in Russia in 1917) but a sustained “war of position” against the whole ideological basis of the ruling class’s hegemony (rule by consent or acquiescence of the ruled) in civil society.

The role of communists in this “war of position” was to be the “organic intellectuals” of the struggle, raising “national popular” demands to create and lead broad alliances against the ruling class’s hegemony in every walk of life. The politics of culture was every bit as important as the achievement of state power.

There were two roots to Gramsci’s heterodoxy: first, a Hegelian-humanist (and in many ways anti-Leninist) western Marxism (which, outside Italy, had, fallen victim to Comintern intellectual police action in the early twenties); and second, a deep concern with specifically Italian problems, particularly the political and cultural legacy of the nineteenth-century creation of an Italian state.

Unsurprisingly, neither the PCI nor its admirers in the Eurocommununist wing of the British Communist Party and elsewhere have been particularly keen to acknowledge the tensions between Gramsci’s Leninism and his western Marxism – the Bolshevik revolution remains the communist parties’ raison d’etre even today – and opening up a debate that might eventually undermine that raison d’etre is simply not in their interests. On the other hand, the PCI has made much of Gramsci’s concern for the “national popular” in Italian culture, a theme that hitherto has had little influence on the PCI’s British acolytes. Perhaps, though, now that Selections from Cultural Writings is available in paperback, this will change.

Selections from Cultural Writings, most of which consists of extracts from the Prison Notebooks, cotains much that is very much specific to Italy. Anyone looking for a ready-made general Marxist theory of culture will be disappointed by this collection, and anyone unfamiliar and uninterested by Italian intellectual history will find it heavy going.

Nevertheless, the book does give a fascinating insight into Gramsci’s way of interpreting the world; and the admirable editing of David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith makes manageable the task of putting into context Gramsci’s often elliptical and parochial polemics.

The Prison Notebooks extracts in Selections from Cultural Writings are ordered thematically: there’s a chapter on journalism, one on the culture of Italian Catholic reaction, another on popular fiction, and so on. At times, the thematic ordering of the material is jarring: but until an edition of the complete Prison Notebooks appears in English, we’ll just have to put up with that. This book is a reminder that Gramsci deserves more than being mythologised as a secular saint by fans of the modern PCI: he really ought to be read as well.

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