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.

His ability to absorb and synthesise information was mind-boggling: in addition to the Notebooks he wrote 33 ‘quaderni’ and over two thousand pages of tightly-written reflections on everything from the Catholic Church, the Risorgimento and Croce to Pirandello and serialised novels. He had not been allowed to write anything other than letters until February 1929, over two years after his arrest. Many books and periodicals were withheld from him and he had to ask Mussolini himself for permission to look at books by Oscar Wilde and even L’Educazione Fascista.

In 1926 he wrote that he had ‘tons, cartloads, households of patience’. A year later he was still confident: ‘I am convinced ... that I won’t have to rot in prison for ever.’ But by 1930, he had become politically isolated from his ‘comrades’ in prison, letters from his wife had dried up after her serious nervous breakdown, and his own health had deteriorated sharply. ‘For four years I have been prisoner number 7047 who is not allowed to have a will of his own and does not enjoy a citizen’s rights (few though they are).’ His earlier optimism about surviving his sentence was completely reversed: ‘I did take the sentence as though, with the greatest probability, it was a sentence to die in prison.’ He compared himself to ‘a dead man on holiday’. ‘Certainly,’ he wrote to Giulia, ‘this year did not pass without leaving many marks on me.’ In October, he complained that ‘my brain cells have evaporated.’ He admitted to being ‘obsessed by thoughts of the past’ and pored over photographs of his family. He was racked by guilt about his sons: ‘for the children I must be a strange father who is always far away and does not take care of them.’ His correspondence with Giulia became yet more frustrating and empty: ‘we have increasingly become phantoms.’ In a rare flash of humour in the second volume, Gramsci compares their correspondence to a folk tale.

Three giants live in Scandinavia far from one another like great mountains. After thousands of years of silence, the first giant shouts to the other two: ‘I hear a herd of cows bellowing!’ Three hundred years later, the second giant answers: ‘I heard the bellowing too!’ And after another three hundred years the third giant announces: ‘If you go on this way, making such a racket, I’ll leave!’

He entertained the thought of breaking off relations with his wife. ‘Why should a living being remain tied to someone who is dead or almost?’ Sraffa called this letter ‘frightening in its absurdity’ and Tatiana refused to pass it on to her sister.

Gramsci became obsessed with his health (relating minute changes in his temperature) and with the complicated changes in his sentence. He no longer discussed books or his work, but only his frightening physical breakdown. He was ‘half-brutalised’ and ‘half-crazy’, coughing up blood, hallucinating and babbling in Sardinian dialect. He was kept behind bars until October 1934, despite doctors’ reports and continual appeals (‘I’m interested in being removed from this hell in which I am slowly dying’) and a last flash of sarcasm: ‘I know this is not impossible because it has been granted to thieves ... and to men who have raped their mothers.’ In August 1935, he was moved to a clinic in Rome: 12 armed guards patrolled its garden day and night. ‘I am convinced that your office does not wish prisoners to be tortured physically,’ he wrote to the Director of the Prison Service. When a release order was finally signed in April 1937, Gramsci’s freedom lasted only five days before he died of a brain haemorrhage.

After 1945, Gramsci was adopted by the PCI as hero figure, martyr and theoretical guru. The first Italian edition of his letters, published in 1947 (edited by Palmiro Togliatti and Felice Platone of the PCI), was censored, as were the Notebooks, in an attempt to conceal his estrangement both from his comrades in prison and from the Communist movement in general. All references to the former Communist leader Amadeo Bordiga (with whom Gramsci had been very friendly in Sicily) were removed, as was any mention of Trotsky. The Trotsky question was extremely delicate: in October 1926. Togliatti had refused to pass on to the Communist International two letters in which Gramsci, no supporter of Trotsky, attacked the idea of a split in the Soviet CP. The two men fell out over this and never wrote to each other again. He retained his interest in Trotsky’s work, however, writing to Mussolini to obtain permission to read My Life and The Revolution Betrayed, and seems to have aligned himself, theoretically at least, with the international opposition to Stalinism.

Gramsci was critical of the ideas of the ‘Third Period’ initiated by Stalin: he believed that an Italian revolution was not imminent and that to defeat Fascism broad alliances were needed with poor southern peasants and Catholics. All this was in clear opposition to the disastrous sectarianism of the class-against-class analysis. In prison, Gramsci fell out with a number of Communists (many of whom had returned to Italy from exile in the expectation of the swift collapse of the Fascist regime) on these points. As early as 1927 he confessed to another Communist that he had ‘lost contact with your milieu’. At the Turi prison near Bari, where he was held from 1928 until 1933, there was a whispering campaign against him and he was accused of being a social democrat or, less familiarly, a Crocean. Isolated, Gramsci turned for moral support to socialists, such as the future president Alessandro Pertini, and to some young anarchists.

In 1930, three senior PCI members were expelled for disagreeing with Stalin’s analysis. Gramsci’s brother Gennaro – an exiled anti-Fascist but not a PCI member – was sought out by the Communist leadership and asked to inform Gramsci of this. Gramsci wrote to Tatiana, in probably the most quoted passage in his letters, that he had ‘just had a visit with my brother and this has given a zigzag course to my thoughts. It has truly been something extraordinarily new, for which I wasn’t in the least prepared.’ What did Gramsci tell his brother (who had introduced him to socialism and been beaten up ‘on his behalf’ by the Fascists in Turin in 1922) and what did Gennaro report back to the Party, which was exiled in Paris?

There are three different versions. The first is that Gramsci was shaken, expressed disagreement with the new line but concurred with the expulsions. This is what Gennaro claimed to have told the party leadership, and it is supported by one fellow prisoner’s testimony. The second version is that Gramsci expressed no opinion and that Gennaro duly informed Togliatti of his silence. The official PCI historian Paolo Spriano, an academic of great stature in post-war Italy, argued this line in Antonio Gramsci and the Party: The Prison Years (1977), and it was also put forward by the Communist leader Luigi Longo. The third view, reported by Gennaro to the writer Giuseppe Fiori and recounted in Fiori’s marvellous biography of Gramsci (1965) and more recently in his Gramsci, Togliatti, Stalin (1991), is that Gramsci had dissented strongly both from the new line and from the expulsions of the three (as he had with the expulsions of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1926). Gennaro had then returned to Togliatti and lied, saying that Gramsci was ‘completely in agreement’ with the Party.

Gennaro is seen as suspect by Communist historians: he fought with an anarchist unit during the Spanish Civil War and became deeply disillusioned with the Communist Party and with the part Togliatti played in that conflict. Gennaro’s death in a car crash in 1965 deprived historians of any opportunity to delve further into the case. Many questions remain unanswered. How, for example, did he manage to reach Gramsci’s prison in the extreme south of Italy, with all the relevant information, only a week after the expulsions in Paris, when Longo himself admitted that the Party could not find him at first and had to make enquiries in the Italian community in France? Was the result of the infamous Central Committee meeting predetermined?

This saga goes some way to explaining Gramsci’s seemingly paranoid obsession with another incident in 1928. Just before his trial was due to begin he (along with other imprisoned leaders) received a letter from Ruggero Grieco, a member of the Party’s Central Committee. Because the letter emphasised the seniority of his position in the PCI Gramsci took it very badly. At best it was, he thought, an idiotic and irresponsible mistake; at worst a deliberate plot to keep him in prison for as long as possible. The latter hypothesis is almost certainly absurd. Recent evidence points to the constant efforts of the international Communist movement to publicise his case, often against Gramsci’s wishes. That Gramsci could even entertain the possibility that this ‘very “strange” letter’ was part of a plot underlines his estrangement from the PCI. Spriano’s laboured attempts to explain away the letter, which he ‘discovered’ in the State Archive and published, only make matters worse.

Apart from a brief period in the Twenties when he wrote turgid articles with titles like ‘The Party Grows in Strength by Combating Anti-Leninist Deviations’, Gramsci had always been a bit of a rebel. In 1914, his early position on neutrality and the war had certainly not been that of the mainstream, and his interpretation of the Russian Revolution as ‘the Revolution against Capital’ was startlingly unorthodox: ‘in Russia, Marx’s Capital was more the book of the bourgeoisie than the proletariat.’ His support for factory councils in Turin in 1919-20 brought him into conflict with both the trade unions and the Socialist Party leadership, ‘A revolution,’ he wrote then, ‘is a genuine revolution and not just empty, swollen, rhetorical demagoguery, only when it is embodied in some type of state, only when it becomes an organised system of power.’

As Richard Bellamy’s collection of his pre-prison writings (excellently produced, edited and translated, but with one clanger: Togliatti was not Gramsci’s ‘fellow Sard’ but Piedmontese) shows, Gramsci foresaw Fascism very early: in 1917 he wrote that ‘the hunt is on ... they are out to get us – to get the socialists. Anyone want to join in, to spit in the faces of the Judases, the traitors? Anyone want to bring some nails and crucify the Antichrist?’ In 1920, he warned of ‘a tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied class and the governing caste ... there will be a bid to smash the working class’s organs of class struggle once and for all.’ At his trial, Gramsci’s only intervention carried the force of both a threat and a promise: ‘you will lead Italy to ruin and it will be up to us Communists to save her.’