Households of Patience

John Foot

  • Antonio Gramsci: Letters from Prison edited by Frank Rosengarten, translated by Raymond Rosenthal
    Columbia, 374 pp, £27.50, March 1994, ISBN 0 231 07558 8
  • Antonio Gramsci: Pre-Prison Writings edited by Richard Bellamy, translated by Virginia Cox
    Cambridge, 350 pp, £40.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 521 41143 2

In 1927, Antonio Gramsci was in chains, about to begin a nightmarish 19-day journey from Sicily to Milan’s San Vittore prison, when he met two ‘common criminals’ in a Palermo waiting-room. One of them refused to accept that he was indeed Gramsci ‘because Antonio Gramsci must be a giant and not such a tiny man.’ Disappointed, the man, Gramsci reported, ‘said nothing more, withdrew to a corner, sat down on an unmentionable contraption and stayed there, like Marius on the ruins of Carthage, meditating on his lost illusions. He painstakingly avoided speaking to me again during the time we remained in the same room and did not say goodbye when we parted.’

Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, the PCI, was less than five feet tall – as well as being hunchbacked. His hunchback has informed a whole school of Gramsci studies which argues that his work must be read above all in the light of his disability and of the extreme poverty of his Sardinian background. Other schools privilege the impact of industrial Turin, the confrontation with the intellectual milieu at the university there and the early ‘conversion’ to socialism. Anyone with a serious interest in Gramsci’s work must inevitably make some link between Gramsci ‘the man’ and the tragedy of his short, tortured life, and Gramsci the political theorist and socialist leader. The connection is clearest in his prison letters, now published in their entirety in English for the first time.

Arrested after anti-Fascist action was declared illegal in November 1926, Gramsci wasn’t actually tried until June 1928, when he was found guilty of ‘conspiratorial activity, instigation of civil war, justification of crime and incitement to class hatred’ and sentenced to 20 years, four months and five days. In prison Gramsci’s life was very different from that of the activist who ‘could have been killed a dozen times’ in the ‘vast and terrible world’, and he decided to ‘concentrate intensely and systematically on some subject that would absorb and provide a centre to my inner life’. He was helped in this altered life by two key people. The first was his sister-in-law, Tatiana, who, despite her own poor health (she is described as ‘hypochondriacal’ in the Introduction to the Letters) was Gramsci’s emotional and physical link to the outside world and to his wife Giulia. His wife and children remained in the USSR and he never saw them again; his youngest son, Giuliano, born after his arrest, he only ever saw in grainy photographs. Giulia was not thought by her family to be either physically or mentally strong enough to visit him and she wrote him only forty or so letters compared with something like six hundred and fifty written by her sister. Gramsci could be very hard on Tatiana, especially when she tried to intervene on his behalf without his prior consent. ‘You know nothing, nothing at all,’ he wrote angrily in 1929, and in 1932 claimed that ‘women never keep the word they have given.’ The economist Piero Sraffa was Gramsci’s other chief support, his generosity enabling Gramsci to keep up the continuous supply of books essential to the production of the Prison Notebooks.

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