Review of Antonio Gramsci by Antonio Santucci, Monthly Review Press (2010)
“In mass politics, to say the truth is precisely a political necessity.” (2010 p.158)
The life of Antonio Gramsci is rightly well known. Born in Sardinia on 22 January 1891, he had to go to work at the age of 11 after his father was imprisoned. He won a scholarship to the University of Turin but was unable to finish his studies. He joined the Italian Socialist Party and inspired by the Russian revolution, started the L’Ordine Nuevo newspaper, which played a pivotal role in the Turin strikes and factory occupations in 1919-20. Gramsci was a founder of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1921. He lived in Russia in 1922-23, and was working for the Communist International when Mussolini’s fascists seized power in Italy. He worked clandestinely in Vienna before returning to Italy in 1924 after his election to parliament. He was arrested in November 1926 and sentenced to 20 years in prison – and only released shortly before his death on 27 April 1937.
Anyone reading a few morsels of Gramsci’s writings will immediately recognise his extraordinary revolutionary mind, which Mussolini’s prosecutor swore had to be silenced for twenty years. First, the flair and verve of his political and cultural writings, which articulated the drive and culture of the cream of the Italian working class in Turin, while being alive to the unevenness of the Italian social formation and the need for workers to ally with the southern peasants. Second, the excruciating pain of his prison letters, describing the struggle and misery of his life. Third, the sweep and insight of his prison notebooks, ground out in the most appalling conditions and cast in a language to decisive the censor, yet so erudite. Little wonder that Gramsci has been the subject of a feeding frenzy, from which thousands of callow academics who’ve never bothered with the labour movement nevertheless find sustenance for their musings in cryptic modes of expression.
But if Gramsci has achieved the status of scholastic vogue, his elevation began and was sustained by a more sinister force. Gramsci’s writings and legacy were consciously appropriated and recast by the Stalinists of the PCI (notably Palmiro Togliatti) during the post-war period, to legitimate their popular frontist and reformist turn towards social democracy. In doing so, they sought to manufacture an apparent alterative to the unsullied tradition of Leon Trotsky.
This context is absolutely vital to understand why Antonio Santucci’s book, so apparently seductive in its sophistication, is in fact just as hollow as the mountain of academic scribbling. Santucci was according Eric Hobsbawm’s preface, the “foremost expert in Gramscian studies” and the “predominant philological scholar of Gramscian texts”. Responsible for over 250 works on Gramsci, editor of volumes of Gramsci’s revolutionary journalism, his early letters, his prison letters as well as popular collections, there is little doubt of his immense scholarship.
Gramsci in the shadow of Trotsky
However this is biography with the schism between Leninism-Trotskyism on the one side, and Stalinism on the other, simply obfuscated. Where Santucci suggests continuity between official communism and Gramsci, there are signs of a break. And in fact the real continuity is between Gramsci and the early Comintern.
As Frank Rosengarten, editor of Gramsci’s letters in English explained decades ago, Trotsky played an important role in Gramsci's education as a communist revolutionary, while he was in Moscow from May 1922 to December 1923. Trotsky's main influences on Gramsci's development were: 1) the conceptualisation and application of the policy of the united front; 2) the analysis of the fascism; 3) the idea that the socialist revolution in Russia was sui generis, and that communist revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist countries would have to confront a different set of tasks and perspectives in order eventually to take power; 4) the struggle against the bureaucratisation of the political system in the Soviet Union and within the Communist Parties; and 5) the concern with culture and the defence of the integrity of literature and art against harassment by bureaucrats.
Santucci can’t avoid the cultural connection – after all Trotsky published Gramsci’s essay on futurism in his book, Literature and Revolution (1923). But the political collaboration and the wide areas of agreement – and indeed where Trotsky actually schooled Gramsci in the strategy and tactics of proletarian revolution – of this there is not the slightest trace.
Of seminal importance as far as the united front is the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern. According to Rosengarten, eyewitness accounts of a direct confrontation between Trotsky and Gramsci at a meeting of the Italian Commission on 15 November, 1922 confirm the interaction that took place between the two comrades. When Gramsci wrote to the Russian Communist Party (14 October 1926), referring to the three opposition leaders that had on occasion “corrected us very energetically and severely”, it was Trotsky whom he had chiefly in mind.
On fascism, Trotsky himself recalled in What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, that in the early 1920's, almost all the Italian Communists regarded fascism as simply another form of capitalist reaction no worse and no different in nature from others. Trotsky wrote: “The particular traits of fascism which spring from the mobilization of the petit-bourgeoisie against the proletariat,” Trotsky wrote, “the Italian Communist Party was unable to discern. Italian comrades inform me that with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party wouldn't even allow the possibility of the fascists' seizing power”. (Struggle against Fascism on Germany, 1971 p.191)
Gramsci is credited with expanding the concept of hegemony, from the idea that the working class had to win the battle of ideas and lead other subaltern classes, to the more sophisticated conception applied to existing ruling classes, who manufacture consent (as well as force) in order to rule. Given the different mechanisms of hegemony used in advanced capitalist states, the conquest of power by the proletariat in the countries of Western Europe would require a significantly different strategy from the one followed by the Russian Bolsheviks. Yet these ideas were anticipated by Trotsky – for example in his speeches to at the Comintern. Trotsky also used military analogies and metaphors (as indeed had earlier Marxists such as Kautsky), which Gramsci made use of in his prison writings.
There is some evidence that Gramsci was sympathetic to the Left Opposition, at least before his arrest. In January 1924 in a letter to his wife, he characterised Stalin's attacks on the Left Opposition as "very irresponsible and dangerous”. Gramsci attempted to mediate in the conflict, writing on behalf of the PCI to the Russian party in early October 1926. To ensure that the letter would arrive promptly, Gramsci posted it to Togliatti. But Togliatti gave the letter to Bukharin, who did not to present it officially to the central committee. Gramsci was angered by Togliatti's tactics and on 26 October, accusing him of being “tainted by bureaucratism” and arguing that what was at stake whether "the proletariat, once power has been taken, can construct socialism”.
Rosengarten is right that Gramsci never really called into question the legitimacy of Stalin's role as heir to Lenin. However the political positions taken by Trotsky and Gramsci in response to the Stalinist “third period” reveal many common features. Both rejected the labelling of social democrats as “social fascists” and both promoted a programme of transitional of demands, embracing the concept of a Constituent Assembly in countries dominated by dictatorships. Gramsci’s prison notebooks do contain some criticism of Trotsky, though his views on permanent revolution and on Trotsky’s strategic views on seizing power are little more than a “vulgar caricature”. We know from Gramsci’s letters and notebooks that he requested and received books by Trotsky. We also know that his elder brother Gennaro informed him of the expulsion of his close collaborators such as Alfonso Leonetti and Pietro Tresso from the PCI in 1930, and of their evolution towards Trotskyism.
Gramsci never accounted for Stalinism. This remains the fundamental hiatus in his work and the field where Trotsky’s legacy remains far more important. The political and prison conditions of the time cut across Gramsci’s development, ultimately neutering him. Had Gramsci been free, the idea that he would have supported Stalin’s line through the 1930s seems utterly grotesque. And Gramsci’s best years, together with his sharpest writing, his “leitmotif, the rhythm of his thought”, belong to the classical Marxist tradition. Neither Stalinist contortion, nor academic caricature: Gramsci is ours.