Tom Nairn

  • Gramsci and Marxist Theory edited by Chantal Mouffe
    Routledge, 288 pp, £9.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0358 7
  • Gramsci and the State by Christine Buci-Glucksmann
    Lawrence and Wishart, 470 pp, £14.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 85315 483 X
  • Gramsci’s Politics by Anne Showstack Sassoon
    Croom Helm, 261 pp, £12.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 7099 0326 X

As a child he was almost always alone. A tiny coffin and shroud stood in the house in Sardinia until he was 23, mute and awesome memorials to the time he almost bled to death, at the age of four. The frightful injury which had caused the haemorrhage left him a dwarf and a hunchback, in spite of repeated iodine rubs, and much familial pleading with the Holy Virgin.

Later on, when the father was jailed for petty embezzlement, the Gramscis slid downhill into humiliating poverty. Antonu attended a village school in the remote hinterland, alongside the children of the most direly exploited, miserable and little-known peasantry in Europe. They kept su gobbu (the hunchback) out of their games and threw stones at him, ‘with the evilness which is found among children and the weak’, as he was to recall later. This continued until he mustered enough rage to turn and hurl them back, in a paroxysm of rebellion.

This was the island impulse that saved him, and allowed him eventually to struggle out of ‘the sewer of my past’. Yet the darkness always remained with him, both affliction and nourishment. ‘The whole society of the Campidano was riddled with witchcraft, spell-casting and belief in the supernatural,’ writes one biographer. The Gramsci children were reared to a knowledge of werewolves, blood-sucking demons and other terrors of night-time. By day as well they learned the legendary Sard landscape and its archaic tongue, from older relatives or the itinerant story-tellers who passed through Sorgono and Ghilarza. Antonu’s first adult ambition – before he became the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci – was to rediscover this fabulous world, and justify it through scholarship.

A passion for reading developed out of his solitude and deformity. This counted in a countryside where few people knew Italian properly, and bore him up to the indispensable threshold of civilisation and a career: knowing all 84 Articles of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Italy by heart. From here he got to a better school, and finally to university in Turin. In an essay written at the age of 20, world history is still viewed very much as the Sard tragedy on a bigger scale. The truth of all times and places has been ‘an insatiable greed shared by all men to fleece their fellows, to take from them what little they have been able to put aside through privations’. Garibaldi, the liberator of the South, is given a good word: but generally, ‘Men possess nothing more than a veneer of civilisation – one has only to scratch them to lay bare the wolf-skin underneath,’ and the best solution would be a universal bloodbath, after which the oppressors will find it is a bit late to be sorry ‘they left the hordes in that state of ignorance and savagery they enjoy today.’

Sardism gave way to the more positive and universal creed of socialism, in the ambience of a lively urban culture devoted to progress and industry. Yet the change was slow. Five years after the essay, in 1916, he wrote that he still felt and lived like a touchy bear in a cave. And two years after that the Liberal intellectual Piero Gobetti found him still seething with resentment, and diagnosed his socialism as being ‘first of all a reply to the offences of society against a lonely Sard emigrant’. The emerging political and intellectual leader put this ferocious nationalism behind him: but not the wry, pessimistic sense of fate associated with it, or the knowledge that reality was such as to demand unfathomable power of will against impossible odds.

It is always important to recall this early phase of Gramsci’s astonishing biography. He is the greatest of Western Marxists. But it cannot be without some significance that he was also a product of the West’s most remote periphery, and of conditions which, half a century later, it became fashionable to call ‘Third World’. No comparable Western intellectual came from such a background. He was a barbed gift of the backwoods to the metropolis, and some aspects of his originality always reflected this distance.

A second, more particular reason for underlining that side of the man lies in these books, and the new wave of Gramscian interpretation they stand for. Mouffe, Buci-Glucksmann and Sassoon are all on broadly the same track. They are in search of a new revolutionary ideology for the European Left as a whole; and they are convinced that its underpinnings can be excogitated from the writings of Gramsci, above all the Prison Notebooks. A left-wing Eurocommunism is seeking for its legitimation; and this Euro-Gramscism is its basis. Some years ago, the American Marxist Paul Piconne predicted that if Marxism is to become a meaningful political force in the West, ‘it will have to follow a Gramscian path,’ and that because Gramsci provides ‘a formulation of Marxism free from all the traditional trappings of orthodox versions’ he would become the inspiration of left opposition to the main Communist Parties as well as an object for ritual obeisances on the part of their leaderships. The prediction is certainly being fulfilled.

Its fulfilment brings new problems, however. A new prophet has been discovered. In these pages the tiny man’s giant shadow is projected as a possible future for Europe. He becomes the key to a new, decent revolutionary philosophy free from the tares of ‘really existing socialism’, and valid everywhere. Everything is recast in a heroic mould chiselled out of the dense, tortured seams of the Notebooks. The Sardinian, and even the Italian, disappears in its glow. Island bristles and peninsular warts have been smoothed away, to produce a curiously cosmopolitan and abstract figure. An Althusserian halo has been bestowed upon the country boy, as if he had retrospectively passed the agrégation and shed all merely human attributes.

Can the transformation be justified? Doubt on this score is not necessarily sentimentality. None of the authors in question could be accused of impiety, in the sense of wilful indifference to Gramsci’s personality or sufferings. The point concerns, rather, the intellectual substance of Gramsci’s writings. Can that really be disengaged and extolled as a new political revelation, as a gospel for the 1980s? Or was it irremediably bound up with certain Sard and Italianate dilemmas, and charged (therefore) with persistent ambiguities which must qualify all efforts at broad philosophical interpretation? Is it not the case that, as Alastair Davidson wrote in his 1977 intellectual biography, studying Gramsci makes one grasp ‘how much each individual can only be explained by his position in a particular historical and social structure, which is his ... The social and economic structure which “produced” him ... can only be grasped structurally if it is grasped historically’?

The English-language reader is now much better equipped to tackle such questions. Beginning with the superb annotated Selections from the Prison Notebooks produced by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (1971), a great deal of Gramsci has become available in first-rate translation. There are two further volumes of Political Writings, covering the whole period from 1910 up to his imprisonment in 1926: and two editions of the Letters from Prison by Hamish Henderson and Lynne Lawner (1974 and 1975). In 1981 Lawrence and Wishart plan to publish a fourth volume in their series of selections, this time from Gramsci’s abundant articles and notes on literature and cultural life. The impact of this ought to be considerable, given the traditional centrality of literary criticism in British culture.

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