Euro-Gramscism

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.

At the same time, an escalating debate about Gramsci’s ideas has been taking place, mainly in Italy and France. Chantal Mouffe’s collection Gramsci and Marxist Theory presents the phases of this argument to the English-language reader. Unfortunately her translations are far below the standard reached with the Gramsci writings. It would be idle to blame the translators: no fewer than ten of them are credited with the different chapters. The fault is an editorial one. It has interesting but disturbing implications, Ms Mouffe opens by declaring that ‘the reign of Althusserianism’ is over and that of Gramscism is beginning. I hope she is right. However, her own example suggests it may not be so easy to break free from the great webs of Ecole Normale library-paste and intellectual terrorism. The same is true of the Buci-Glucksmann and Sassoon volumes. Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s study, especially, can be seen as a mighty struggle for its own emancipation from the spiderous idiom and attitudes which invaded Marxism in the 1970s – yet the struggle is expressed, inevitably, in the very terms she wishes to transcend.

This is the context of the problem of accessibility. Though a permanent dilemma of any democratic or mass politics, it has become impossibly aggravated for the Left by the consolidation of academic Marxism since the later 1960s: by the existence, that is, of a distinct social stratum now numerous and established enough to possess its own idiolect. This speech-mode is governed by the key concept of rigour, a notion suitably combining professional strictness with quasi-Leninist disciplinarianism. Rigour in the new tribal sense is counterposed for its justification against what one might call numbskull populism, an item never in short supply on the Left.

Rigorists believe that Marxism is a science, in an exciting new sense, demanding new terminology and conceptual technicians for its development. Populists stick to the conviction that anything worth saying must be accessible to the humblest IQ in the land, and translatable into Daily Mirror rhetoric. Typically fixated by methodology and language, rigorism perceives departure from its own discourse-categories as mere slobbering humanism or (in the political version) ‘reformism’ and ‘revisionism’. Populism answers, naturally enough, with impatient dismissal of the new priesthood. Ever suspicious of élites, socialists could hardly avoid paranoia over such a blatantly hermetic we-group.

From one angle, Gramsci’s life and writings were a final demolition of this preposterous polarity. His arduous scholarly background made him intensely aware of cultural differentiations, and of the impossibility of populist short-circuits: ‘intellectuals’ are a definite, though variegated, social stratum, of crucial political significance, and with irreducible functions. Innovation is one such function, and is rarely comprehensible to everyone; culture spreads in phases, through the byways and reflections pondered on so carefully in his Letteratura e Vita Nazionale notes. Yet at the same time – the second unique aspect of Gramsci’s life, after his upbringing – he was involved in organising and leading a genuine mass revolutionary movement. No other intellectual in his or the following generation of Western Marxists was to enjoy such an experience directly.

It immunised him completely against that scepticism of or even contempt for the masses which, later, infected the Marxist intelligentsia. Nobody had fewer illusions about ‘ordinary people’ than Gramsci. But the Turin experience of 1919-20 guaranteed him against the supreme illusion: that of believing in their inevitable servitude and myopia. As a result, all his writing from that period forward embraces a wider register, perhaps, than that of any other political figure of our century. He wrestles constantly with the most difficult or out-of-the-way ideas: yet there is never anything at all arcane about his argument or attitude. Rather, he was haunted by the sense that the most abstract phenomena – such as the Crocean spirit-world which dominated the Italian universities at that time – always have a desperately practical significance, if only one can get them into the right focus. Conversely, the most ‘concrete’ things – a popular saying, street names, modes of address, talk of the weather – will betray a highly dialectical meaning, when interrogated with insight.

Marxism should, and can, know everything. But – in sharp contrast to the neo-Marxist academy – it is never for people ‘in the know’. He pointed out of a great predecessor that ‘Machiavelli had in mind “those who are not in the know”, and it was they whom he intended to educate politically.’ Who is not ‘in the know’, in the relevant sense? ‘The revolutionary class of the time, the Italian “people” or “nation”, the citizen democracy which gave birth to men like Savonarola and Pier Soderini’ (Note sul Machiavelli). To keep the doors open is not easy, and not all will pass through them; there are many mansions in Marxism’s house, which only windbag Philistines pretend is one entity. Yet if openness is abandoned, the entire political aim of the project is enfeebled. Esotericism is a form of division spelling defeat. If Marxism becomes a structuralist algebra on one level, it is bound to remain cloddish orthodoxy among those ‘not in the know,’ the majority for ever innocent of epistemological breaks or (Ms Buci-Glucksmann’s revelation) the ‘gnoseology of politics’.

The question of translation is relevant here. In an earlier essay written with Anne Sassoon, Chantal Mouffe castigated English-language discussion of Gramsci as ‘naive’, because ignorant of Franco-Italian theoretical developments. The charge was justified, in spite of one dauntingly important exception (which I will return to later). However, naivety might have been dispelled more readily had the material been put into English, rather than the curious Volapük of the 1970s.

Another reproach must be added to this, concerning the Italian contributions to Gramsci and Marxist Theory. The Introduction places them within a dialogue about Gramsti and political theory, where the key question is what he gave to international political science. It does not stress sufficiently how much these articles were also blows in a political war, aimed and received as such. This struggle was around the new ‘historic compromise’ strategy of the Italian Communist Party, and its stakes have, increasingly, become a matter of literal life and death. For example, Massimo Salvadori’s ‘Gramsci and the PCI: Two Conceptions of Hegemony’ was part of a Socialist riposte to the Communist assault on those elements in the intelligentsia supposedly soft on terrorism and reluctant to soil their hands with real responsibility. The attack had been led by PC nabobs like Amendola and Napolitano, alarmed by dwindling support for the interminable crab-like manoeuverings the party leadership in Parliament. Salvadori’s brilliant answer (one of the delights of the collection) called forth in turn an artillery-burst from Via delle Botteghe Oscure, scandalised by a Socialist smart-ass who was actually walking off with the Party’s chief fetish-object under his arm: Gramsci.

One of the Communist replies is the concluding chapter of Ms Mouffe’s book, Biagio de Giovanni’s ‘Lenin and Gramsci: State, Politics and Party’. The editor says it is ‘rich in theoretical implications’, and that ‘it is again the concept of hegemony which is at stake’ in Signor de Giovanni’s reconsecration of Gramscian thought. What was also at stake (one must object) was that afternoon’s séance between Berlinguer and Andreotti on the precise nuances of the manner in which the PCI would continue not posing a vote of no-confidence in the Christian-Democratic Government, and so maintain the compromesso storico on its serpentiform course. De Giovanni’s thesis is that all historical development since the Great Depression sanctifies Berlinguer’s strategy, and that Gramsci’s egemonia was a premonition of the wonder to come. ‘The party ... and the readjustment of the relation between intellectual labour and the finality of development, have created a structural multiplicity, organic in points of aggregation, organised, unified by the return into the forefront of the use value of the productive forces and of social wealth,’ muses Professor de Giovanni, compressing several epochs of mystification into one gigantic paragraph of apology. Quite barren of theoretical implications, this stuff suggests that those outflanking the PC on its left were, if not terrorists, then poor errant souls without a philosophical rag (let alone the Gramscian mantle) to their name.

But that is not ‘politics’ in the sense these authors think important. They conceive Gramsci as the founder (with or without Lenin) of Marxist political theory in a sense that transcends the sordid and the merely national. The political realm is autonomous, and Gramsci is something like its Galileo. They say of him roughly what he said of Machiavelli: ‘The first question ... in a study of Machiavelli is the question of politics as an autonomous science, of the place that political science occupies or should occupy in a systematic conception of the world.’ This is why (incidentally) all three volumes must appear strange to any pre-Althusserian Rip Van Winkles still convinced that Marxism is an economic-determinist creed. They will find the mode of production, the declining rate of profit and other old acquaintances, held sternly at arm’s length, when they are noticed at all.

Is Gramsci the Machiavelli of Communist political thought? He himself devoted much time to the great Florentine, and conceived the Marxist revolutionary party as il moderno Principe, a contemporary equivalent to Machiavelli’s Prince-saviour. All three of these writers subscribe heavily to this view, and maintain that the ‘modern Prince’ properly understood from their own readings of the Gramsci texts will be a historical force furnishing (in Chantal Mouffe’s words) ‘a “possible” Eurocommunism which avoids both the perils of Stalinism and of social democracy.’

The alternative interpretation goes something like this: Gramsci is indeed a modern version of Machiavelli, and a transposition of certain Machiavellian themes and impulses onto the stage of 20th-century social movements. However, far from underwriting him as a prophetic figure, this truth does exactly the opposite. It circumscribes his thought, by demonstrating the persistence of certain problems of peninsular development from the 16th to the 20th century. ‘Peninsular’ is the correct term, not ‘Italian’. For the crux of the persistent dilemma, of which Machiavelli and Gramsci stand at opposite ends, has been a failure to constitute one Italian nation, as distinct from the Italianate state of the Risorgimento and after.

In Machiavelli’s day the Italian lands were succumbing to foreign conquest by the embryonic nation-states beyond the Alps. There, great unifying dynasties had constructed bureaucratic and military machines dwarfing the resources of the city-states and princedoms. From the end of the 15th century onwards, they turned avidly upon the fabulous and almost defenceless peninsula, where Renaissance treasure-houses were protected by dime-a-dozen condottieri. Though himself a staunch republican, Machiavelli saw that the only hope of repelling the tide lay in the formation of a central-Italian kingdom able to compete. Without its own absolutism, its own equivalent of the Valois, Tudor or Hapsburg monarchies, Italy would decline into a collection of colonised provinces. Thus, he was forced to hope that the career of the Papal bastard Cesare Borgia (idealised in Il Principe) would, miraculously, inspire some other princeling to the task.

It was too late. Italian feudality was too fragmented and set in its ways to accomplish the transformation. It decomposed into three centuries of enforced quietism. The political retardation Machiavelli’s formula was meant to cure became permanent. There arose a petty universe of chronic dependency and corruption, in which ‘politics’, divorced from the mainstream of European state-formation, assumed the form of purely personal or familial intrigue and advancement. Reflecting bitterly upon the country’s economic history in the new Einaudi Storia d’Italia, Ruggiero Romano points out how, in Italy more than anywhere else, political power became the means to economic success: ‘With only rare exceptions, politics have for centuries of our history been the springboard of economic progress. In short, is not that history the story of one colossal theft, perpetrated with assiduity across the centuries?’

Endemic retardation at one level may, however, promote advance at another. This has been strikingly the case as regards Italian political thought and initiative. That specific backwardness rendered ‘politics’ all-important, both in the Machiavellian sense of a search for alternatives and in the sense indicated by Romano, of sottogoverno, duplicity, self-interested manipulation and so on. The Italianate legend of Machiavellianism conflates the two things into one sinister image: ‘politics’ may accomplish miracles if sufficient virtu (cunning and will power) is put into it; or, if not a new world, then at least the minor miracle of next year’s contract or Uncle Gino’s pension.

The intractable political problems of the peninsula, in other words, have fostered a dramatic search for answers, and an unusually intense preoccupation with ‘the political’ as a quasi-autonomous source of both verities and opportunities. Italian periods of crisis, above all, have invariably opened this fertile womb. Her offspring have been now marvellous, now disastrous: but always prodigies, in some way superior to the timid contrivances of those more stable societies which the Italians (for the most part) wished to resemble. The foundering of city-state Italy issued in Machiavelli, still the most important figure in the history of political thought. The renovation of Italy after the French revolutionary interlude brought, in Mazzinian nationalism, the archetype ol the new ‘age of nationalities’. After World War One, the crisis of the new and precarious national state engendered Fascism, an invention which, less than two decades later, threatened to take over the world. The collapse of Fascism produced in turn the larger-than-life heroism of the Resistance movements. As the past-war state has stumbled into debility and recession, the inheritor of these movements, Italian Communism, has contrived yet another epochal philosophy to clothe its designs: Eurocommunism.

Earlier Mouffc and Sassoon did admit, a trifle nervously, that one could say that ‘it is impossible to find in Lenin the same type of sensitivity to cultural and moral direction with which the Italian tradition had imbued Gramsci.’ However, neither they nor Buci-Glucksmann seem willing to contemplate the possible depths of that tradition. They believe they are rescuing Gramsci from the Italians, and laying bare his universal significance. It never occurs to them that what they might be actually discussing, and vigorously contributing to, is – once again – the Italianisation of Europe.

Conceding that Gramsci was no mere philosopher and that one must begin, at least, from the actual context of his political life, Chantal Mouffe lists in her introduction to Gramsci and Marxist Theory some of the recent work on that context: the influence of De Leon and the English Shop Steward movement, his relationship to Leninism and the Third International, his arguments against Amadeo Bordiga and the Socialist leader Serrati, and so on. Important as this is, there is a characteristic left-wing weakness attached to it. The determining context of Gramsci’s life and thought was not provided by these good causes and persons. It was furnished by the unprecedented defeat of all of them at the hands of the Fascists.

It is still not easy to grasp the dimensions of that defeat, because of our post-1945 wisdom. We know that the Lion’s day endured only a few years and petered out in the self-devouring farce of Salo. But saving foresight was not granted to Gramsci or his comrades in Turi prison and the other dungeons. They felt themselves hurled like stones into the sea, a darkness so utter the only hope was to feel, one day, that the bottom might have been reached. Though Gramsci faced this with his customary toughness, it meant recognising that one had been turned from a would-be ploughman of the historical field into manure. ‘You don’t live as a lion even for a minute, far from it: you live like something far lower than a sheep for years and years and know that you have to live like that. Image of Prometheus who, instead of being attacked by the eagle, is devoured by parasites ...’

As a leader of the Torinese uprising of 1919-20, he felt the landslide more acutely than anyone else. It was he who, at its high point, had written a report to the Executive Committee of the Third International proudly describing how ‘the proletarian army fell like an avalanche on the centre of the city, sweeping the nationalist and militarist rabble off the streets before it.’ Yet only two years later the wolves had returned, to revenge themselves on a thoroughly demoralised working class. After a blood-stained summer and autumn, and the surrender of the state to Mussolini in October 1922, Turin had still to be taught a lesson. One of the new order’s academic spaniels, G.A. Chiurco, ended his panting chronicle with i fatti di Torino:

Fascist bands speedily accomplished reprisals, awakening a great deal of terror among the communists. Conflicts broke out, leading to a number of deaths. At two in the morning the Camera del Lavoro was set alight; then what was left was turned over to the authorities, and the body itself dissolved. The local Fascist High Command took possession of the ‘Karl Marx’ centre. After that the Railwaymens’ Club in Via Risalta was occupied, and the editorial and printing premises of the communist organ L’Ordine Nuovo[Gramsci’s paper] were set fire to and destroyed.

The Turin industrialists themselves were appalled by the violence, and sent off a delegation of protest to Rome the following day.

This reversal of fortune had taken place – it is certainly not irrelevant to recall – under the ideological banner of anti-statism. The subsequent evolution of Fascist corporatism, with its new and extensive modes of state control, was to cancel the fact in most memories. However, from early 1920 until he got into power, Mussolini sought to ingratiate his movement with the property-owning classes. His address to the second Fascist Congress was an invocation of the verities so prized, today, by Keith Joseph and other members of Mrs Thatcher’s government. A year later, his first parliamentary speech sounded the same note. The Sardinian socialist Emilio Lussu wrote a famous memoir of the event: ‘He had taken up his seat at the back, on the extreme right; high up and separated from the rest of his deputies, he seemed like a vulture, crouching upon a rock. “I must declare at once,” he began, “that my speech will be reactionary in character. It will be reactionary because I am anti-Parliamentarian, anti-Democratic and anti-Socialist.” ’ What was the gist of this reaction? A return to simple-minded Manchesterism. It was time to ‘deprive the State of all the functions which render it dropsical and vulnerable,’ he asserted. ‘Let the State provide a police-force to protect decent people against villains, properly organised courts, an army ready for anything, and a foreign policy in tune with real national needs. Everything else – even the secondary school system – ought to be left to private enterprise. To save the State, we must first abolish the collectivist state.’ Evidently, Lussu concludes with due sarcasm, the Corporative State was not yet worked out in sufficient detail.

Long before Professor Friedman this kind of fool’s gold was employed to rot the civic sense and replace it with a more atomised, manipulable climate of resentment. The citizen gave way to a mythical, ill-done-by ‘small man’, repository of the betrayed national virtues; causes and arguments were submerged by scapegoats (first at home, then foreign ogres), chiromantic ‘radicalism’ and editorial frothing. Though anti-parliamentary in Italy, where secular cynicism had been transferred to all the institutions of the new bourgeois state, the virus is perfectly compatible with voting democracy. Provided the latter is addled and incompetent enough, that is. Then when the patient is laid out it is discovered – inevitably – that the crisis demands more state operation, not less. The only real problem is how much more, and how painful.

Whereas in Great Britain such convulsions produced merely a parodic form of parliamentary rule, the National Government, in Italy the state gave way. The weakness in political formation diagnosed by Machiavelli remained. The national unification of Risorgimental times had been (in Gramsci’s phrase) ‘passive revolution’, a change stage-managed and co-opted from above, and not a remaking of society from below. The semblance and impulse of revolt had been transformed into counter-revolution, protecting the vitals of the old system. Now, after the war’s disapointments and the left-wing threat of 1919-20, it was happening again. With far greater violence and ingenuity, a soured middle class was discarding the state-form of Piedmontese Liberalism and half-blindly forging another. The form of hegemony was drastically remade: and yet it would only be to redeem the old interests and lend new life to the ancient, festering ailments of the country.

Revolution from above had again defeated the Left’s revolution from below. It had done so by welding together underlying socioeconomic conservatism with the highest, most ruthless political intelligence – by exploiting to the limit the autonomy of the ‘political’, understood as a self-acting motor of historical change. Festooned with stolen liberal and socialist trappings, the chariot of counter-revolution rolled over the labour movement, the Catholic left, the Freemasons and all other organised resistance. Through Barnum and Bailey patriotism its principal weakness, the absence of a homogeneous national reality, was converted into short-term advantage.

The defeat seemed endless. Seven years after the March on Rome, and three after Gramsci’s imprisonment, Lussu escaped from the Lipari Island prison with two other opponents of the regime. As dawn came up land was, at last, sighted from their small boat. But even this prospect could not lift their spirits, he recalls. ‘ “Is Fascism going to last for ever?” asked someone suddenly despondent. “It looks like it ...” said another, and we fell into a pessimistic discussion on the general state of Europe. “Reaction is gaining ground everywhere,” the first speaker went on. “The world is going to the right.” ’ The only consolation (they agreed) was that the tides and solar system seemed immune to the trend, so far.

The problematic conditioning all Gramsci’s themes and researches was essentially to do with Italian catastrophe: not Stalinism, workers’ control, the nature of the Party, Leninism’s Seventh Seal or the other preoccupations of the Eurocommunists. The source of his long journey into night was this social explosion contradicting almost every rational expectation, and posing the most fundamental questions. What historical pathology had allowed two such ‘passive revolutions’ to succeed and sweep everything (politically speaking) before them? The relationship between state and civil society had been abnormal, clearly. Yet its very existence showed something amiss with the habitual models, Marxist and other, and the deficiency was not confined to the level of political tactics or organisation. The chronically broken and deformed crystal of Italian history had become a standing accusation of the wider philosophy of the Left, of its stereotyped world-view. And, within that world-view, above all of its political ideas and theories.

This is the first part of a discussion of Gramsci by Tom Nairn. The second will be published in the next issue.