Debating Gramsci's legacy

Submitted by Matthew on 14 November, 2012 - 9:24

Toby Abse reviews Martin Thomas (ed.) Antonio Gramsci: Working-Class Revolutionary: Essays and Interviews, Workers’ Liberty, 2012, pp. 76.


This booklet performs an extremely valuable role in both reasserting Antonio Gramsci’s historic significance as a revolutionary anti-Stalinist Marxist and arguing that his ideas have a continuing relevance for activists in the contemporary labour movement.

The very fact that both of these propositions actually need to be argued for in the first place is an indication of the huge extent to which Gramsci’s legacy has been hijacked for decades by forces for whom he would have had absolutely no time at all.

The grotesque process of distortion started with Stalin’s loyal servant Palmiro Togliatti, Gramsci’s successor as leader of the Italian Communist Party (1926-64). In his youth Togliatti had been very closely associated with Gramsci’s weekly paper L’Ordine Nuovo — which had acted as the voice of the factory councils during the biennio rosso (two red years) of 1919-20 in Turin.

He could therefore make a very plausible claim to be an accurate interpreter of the ideas of his one time friend and comrade; but there is a fair amount of evidence that suggests that Togliatti, who had already refused to pass on Gramsci’s critical Letter to the Central Committee of the CPSU as early as 1926, had been eager to distance himself from the increasingly heretical prisoner in the 1930s.

Togliatti organised the publication of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks in Italy in 1948-51, a project that probably had no particular urgency as far as Stalin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were concerned. But he did so in order to make use, for his own ends, of these rather fragmentary and cryptic incomplete texts, composed in an Italian fascist gaol between 1929 and 1935 by a man in increasingly poor health.

Togliatti was eager to recruit to the PCI Italian intellectuals who had usually been influenced by Croce or other Hegelians, figures with whom Gramsci had engaged in a critical dialogue, as well as to back up his own “national popular” strategy, which owed very little to Gramsci, seizing upon key phrases such as “hegemony” or “war of position” and giving them an increasingly gradualist, implicitly reformist, connotation.

As time passed, particularly after Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956, Gramsci was increasingly used by the PCI to justify what was eventually to come to be branded as “The Italian Road to Socialism”. The first translations of Gramsci’s work into English were published by Lawrence and Wishart, at that stage the publishing house of the Communist Party of Great Britain. A short book of extracts (The Modern Prince and Other Writings) appeared in 1957. The much more substantial Selections from the Prison Notebooks came out in 1971.

The subsequent publication by the same firm of two volumes of Gramsci’s earlier writings in 1977-78 clearly revealed the younger Gramsci to have been a committed revolutionary. But that was not where the CPGB’s emphasis was placed. Some kind of epistemological break was inferred.

Gramsci was associated in a general way with what by the mid 1970s became known as Eurocommunism — the Western European Communist Parties’ distancing of themselves from Moscow in the wake of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The self-description “Gramscian” was very frequently deployed by the faction associated with the magazine Marxism Today to justify their attacks on any form of class politics in their long internal battle with the more pro-Soviet Morning Star supporters, obstinately linked to sections of the trade union bureaucracy, who eventually became the Communist Party of Britain.

There were intermittent attempts by various British Trotskyist groups to challenge the dominant and utterly erroneous interpretation of Gramsci as a reformist peaceful-roader predominantly concerned with cultural questions rather than class-based political activism.

Perry Anderson’s major article “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci” — whose key theses are rightly defended against Peter Thomas by Martin Thomas in “Anderson’s Antinomies” — mounted a sustained counterattack in New Left Review in 1976. But the CPGB’s assessment of the great Italian Marxist thinker was enthusiastically endorsed by the bulk of British academics. A number of those who claimed some degree of expertise in his thought, such as Roger Simon and Anne Showstack Sassoon, were themselves either in or close to the Eurocommunist wing of the CPGB.

As a result Gramsci became adopted by mainstream Cultural Studies and Media Studies Departments as a kind of cuddly culturalist Marxist. Over the last couple of decades all sorts of strange “post-Marxist” and post-modernist misinterpretations of Gramsci have become rife. Some of them are discussed by Martin Thomas in his essay “The other shore of Gramsci’s bridge: Gramsci and post-Marxism”. He may be too kind in focusing primarily on Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe who, in their own minds at least, have some vestigial attachment to the left, despite their early retreat from class.

Whilst Martin Thomas’s own interest in Gramsci is a very longstanding one, I think it is fair to say that the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has not been widely perceived on the left as being particularly influenced by Gramsci (certainly not to an extent remotely comparable to their engagement with Max Shachtman, for example).

The immediate trigger for the publication of the booklet came from outside, from the discussion provoked by the recent publication of a major study of Gramsci by Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Brill, 2009). This is probably the only attempt to reclaim the mature Gramsci for revolutionary Marxism since Perry Anderson’s article in New Left Review that has made any impact on the academic milieu, which cheerfully ignored the more polemical pamphlets of Chris Harman or Chris Bambery.

Peter Thomas is an Australian who studied at the University of Queensland between 1992 and 2000 and currently holds a post at Brunel University in London. Martin Thomas describes Peter as “by the time he left Brisbane, a Trotskyist of some sort” (p. 45). This is, as far as I can tell, an accurate reflection of Peter’s position; I have heard him speak in London at events organised by the SWP and Counterfire as well as the AWL and have been informed by Socialist Resistance comrades that when he was living in Amsterdam he had some contact with the Fourth International.

Peter sees Gramsci as an uncompromising revolutionary Marxist to the end of his life, a fierce opponent of Stalin’s Third Period line (a line fully accepted by the Italian party’s leadership, who expelled Tresso, Leonetti and Ravazzoli for opposing it, even if Togliatti may have been privately less enthusiastic about it than Longo or Secchia), and deeply influenced by many ideas originating with Lenin and Trotsky.

But he ascribes to the imprisoned Gramsci, and seems himself to subscribe to, a conception of the revolutionary party that seems to downgrade its role within “a whole series of hegemonic apparatuses” (p.23) — a position that diverges from that of the AWL and indeed all other groups subscribing to some variant of the Trotskyist tradition that I have ever come across.

This seemed the principal point of disagreement between Peter and Martin in the interview conducted by Martin and transcribed in this booklet (“The Gramscian moment: an interview with Peter Thomas”), in Martin’s review of Peter’s book (“The revolutionary socialist as democratic philosopher”) and in the discussion at last month’s Workers’ Liberty London Forum on Gramsci.

As regards my personal views on the contemporary relevance of what is popularly known as the Leninist theory of the party, I sometimes feel that the young Trotsky of Our Political Tasks may have been right.

As an historian, I would be inclined to considerable scepticism about the claim that Gramsci eventually adopted the quite pluralist and libertarian view that Peter ascribes to him. Whatever his initial reluctance, he had ultimately been willing to impose the Comintern’s views on the United Front and other matters on a party with a Bordigist majority in a somewhat top down fashion in 1924-26.

Given Peter’s prolonged and rigorous study of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, I would concede that he may be able to prove “that in the Prison Notebooks Gramsci engaged in a very intense self-critique of his own political role and of the different conceptions of a political party that he had affirmed in his years as an activist” (p.25).

Peter convincingly argues that Gramsci‘s period in the Soviet Union in 1922-23 had a far greater impact on him than is generally accepted by those who seek to present Gramsci as some sort of “Western Marxist”.

He stresses the way Trotsky converted Gramsci to a lasting belief in the importance of the United Front tactic, the tactic which Bordiga (and Gramsci under Bordiga’s influence) had so vigorously rejected in 1921-22 and the influence of what Peter calls “The Last Lenin” of the period after the Russian Civil War — and not just the earlier Lenin of the pre-1917 debates more generally acknowledged by writers on Gramsci — on Gramsci’s conception of hegemony.

Many previous commentators on Gramsci have written a great deal about his views on the role of various types of intellectuals (especially the difference between traditional and organic intellectuals). Peter puts a particular emphasis on the concept of the “democratic philosopher” — ascribing especial importance to a passage from the Notebooks in which Gramsci writes of “a new type of philosopher, whom we could call ‘a democratic philosopher’ in the sense that he is a philosopher convinced that his personality is not limited to himself as a physical individual but is an active social relationship of modification of the cultural environment.” (p. 39).

Gramsci’s belief in the importance of education and dialogue in the building of a revolutionary party is in fact emphasised by both contributors to this booklet.

Martin quotes Gramsci’s opinion that “It is necessary to engage battle with the most eminent of one’s adversaries if the end proposed is one of raising the tone and intellectual level of one’s followers and not just … of creating a desert around oneself by all means possible” (p.74) — a lesson which unfortunately many on the contemporary British left have yet to learn.

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