Antonio Gramsci (edited and translated by Derek Boothman), A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 (Lawrence and Wishart, 2014), £25
The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci is widely acknowledged, even beyond the left, as one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. This collection gathers together around 200 of his letters ranging from his school days in Sardinia, through joining the socialist movement at university, as an international communist leader in the early 1920s, right up until the moment of his arrest and imprisonment by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1926. It presents a fascinating narrative that makes much detail about Gramsci’s pre-prison life available to English-speaking readers, including some recently discovered correspondence published here for the first time.
Gramsci’s early letters to his family are filled with requests for money and, despite frequent ill health, reports of his promising academic results. The latter earned him a scholarship to study modern philology (a precursor of linguistics) in Turin, where he developed a passion for language and the study of dialects that would continue to manifest itself even in the final pages of his now-famous Prison Notebooks. However, inspired by the upsurge in struggle following the Russian Revolution, Gramsci’s increasing political commitment led him to abandon his studies for revolutionary journalism.
These letters document the emerging concepts of Gramsci’s Marxism, which do not simply appear “full-blown” in the Prison Notebooks, but can be seen developing in dialogue with both his personal and political relations. They highlight the importance that Gramsci placed on education in building political organisation, even taking some cues from the well-organised religious schools of the Catholic Church. However, Gramsci conceives education as the creation of a collective critical culture, not as scholastic instruction. In a letter from 1918, Gramsci explains a scheme he initiated among young workers in the Turin socialist movement, the Club for Moral Life. These discussion groups aimed to help young socialists develop the habits of research, of “disciplined and methodical reading, to the simple and calm exposition of their convictions” (p100). He would return to this project in 1924, designing correspondence schools for the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) while in exile from fascism in Vienna.
Editor and translator Derek Boothman skilfully places the bewildering array of characters and events that populate Gramsci’s letters in their historical context with a detailed yet readable introduction. Due to gaps in the correspondence, we get only a fleeting glimpse of the biennio rosso, the two red years (1919-20). This period marked the high point of the revolutionary wave in Italy following the First World War. Readers who are new to Gramsci’s life may therefore wish to supplement this volume by reading about his engagement with the militant factory council movement in Turin through the revolutionary newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo, New Order (see for example, Megan Trudell’s article “Gramsci: the Turin years” in International Socialism 114).
The influence of these formative experiences is ever-present in Gramsci’s subsequent letters, which cover his time as a leader of the young Communist Party of Italy. The PCI was born in difficult conditions, splitting with the Italian Socialist Party in 1921 as the wave of militancy receded and the fascist movement was on the rise. Gramsci travelled to Moscow as a delegate of the Communist International (Comintern), and his time there had a profound effect on him. The severe blows inflicted by fascism on the working class movement in Italy made many activists deeply pessimistic. Gramsci acknowledged these defeats, but pointed his comrades towards “the daily demonstration that I witnessed in Russia of a people creating a new life for itself, new patterns of behaviour, new relationships, new ways of thinking and posing all life’s problems” (p271).
Gramsci had initially subordinated himself within the PCI to the intransigent faction led by the “talented and energetic” leader Amadeo Bordiga. This group advocated abstaining from elections and called for an immediate break with bourgeois democracy. But Gramsci later argued against the left grouping of Bordiga, saying that the PCI could not assume the attitude of “misunderstood geniuses”. Gramsci and his comrades had learnt “how deeply rooted the traditions of social democracy are and how difficult it is to destroy the residues of the past through simple ideological polemics” (p158). From December 1923, Gramsci moved to Vienna in order to reorientate the PCI towards the united front strategy proposed by the Comintern.
These letters bear witness to Gramsci’s struggle with Bordiga, patiently winning over key leaders to a new perspective of broadening the basis for mass political activity and building the independent leadership capacities of the working class movement. The distinguishing feature of Gramsci’s conception of “Marxism as developed in Leninism”, was not an intransigent and fixed ideological position that sets up a firewall against reformism, but rather “an organic and systematic body of organisational principles and tactical stances” (p168).
Activists can draw inspiration from the revolutionary determination of Gramsci as he reorganises the PCI, with some success, under harsh conditions of clandestinity. Sadly, Gramsci’s political activity was cut short in 1926 by the fascist prison sentence that would ultimately lead to his death. The depth of his commitment resonates even in his most personal letters. Gramsci wonders to his partner Jul’ka Schucht, whether it is possible to have a passion for struggle without love: “would it not have sterilised and reduced to a pure intellectual fact, to a pure mathematical calculation, my nature of being a revolutionary?” (p247) The apt title, “A great and terrible world”, is one of the most frequent refrains in the letters between Gramsci and Jul’ka. It is a line from Kim by Rudyard Kipling, one of Gramsci’s favourite authors.
The collection also includes Gramsci’s famous letter of 1926 to the Russian Communist Party criticising the handling of Leon Trotsky and the internal opposition by Stalin and the majority of the leadership. Gramsci’s letter emphasises that “your duties as Russian militants can and must be carried out within the framework of the interests of the international proletariat” (p373). Palmiro Togliatti from the PCI reproached Gramsci for this criticism. In his reply, Gramsci presciently warned Togliatti that: “the whole of your reasoning is vitiated by ‘bureaucratism’’’ (p380).
This collection is highly recommended for those studying Gramsci and activists alike. Boothman’s translation and editorial apparatus are impressive in their forensic detail without interrupting the flow of the letters. The letters provide a painfully honest window into the highs and lows of the upheavals in Western Europe following the First World War.
Gramsci’s legacy is the experience of building a mass revolutionary organisation, and the possibility of achieving this under the most challenging conditions. Even in the darkest moments, Gramsci’s vivid imagination sparks with the hope for a new civilisation free from the horrors of fascism and capitalism. Yet, he disdains utopian stances, and his strategy is always rooted in the “real relations of conflicting forces” (p287), which must be realised through the hard work and discipline of revolutionary organisation.