An anti-Stalinist Gramsci

Submitted by Matthew on 13 January, 2016 - 11:05 Author: Martin Thomas

The first, and longest, essay in this book is a warm appreciation of the interaction between Gramsci and Trotsky.

The Prison Notebooks contains some sharp and, as even the mild-mannered Rosengarten puts it, "unfair" attacks on Trotsky's ideas. Yet, as Rosengarten documents, Gramsci had learned a lot from Trotsky in 1922-3. He was sympathetic to the 1923 Left Opposition. He opposed Stalinist "Third Period" policy in much the same way that Trotsky did, and "did not give any credence to the Stalinist slander of Trotsky". In jail he made efforts to get some of Trotsky's writings.

Both Gramsci and Trotsky were "associated with a philosophy of Marxist praxis that provides alternatives to the Stalinist model…". Both "had contempt for compromises that sacrifice principle for expediency", although "Gramsci was more willing than Trotsky to accept and live with the bureaucratised structures created by the Soviet leaders".
In contrast to many books on Gramsci, Rosengarten's is straightforward in style. As the title indicates, it knows that the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks was the same Gramsci as the Bolshevik communist of Gramsci's years of public activity up to his jailing by Mussolini's fascist regime in 1926.

Rosengarten, who died in 2014, was primarily an expert on Italian literature. Most of his writings on Gramsci, collected in this book, were written in the mid-1980s, when he was nearing retirement, or after 2001, when he was well on in his 70s.

In the introduction he recalls the setting-up of the International Gramsci Society in 1989. “Almost without exception the reaction was one of strong support and solidarity with the people struggling for change" in Eastern Europe”. Rosengarten was one of many who identified with the "Eurocommunist" version of Gramsci — Gramsci as a democratic alternative to Stalinism. Unlike the "Eurocommunists" most influential in the Communist Parties of the 1970s, he remained a socialist.

Rosengarten accepts, I think wrongly, that the famous passages in the Prison Notebooks about "war of position" and winning "hegemony" in civil society before political revolution are coherent and represent the gist of Gramsci's prison thoughts. Thus he sees Gramsci in prison as moving partially towards a sort of populism, which in one essay he compares to the populism of C L R James after his return to Trinidad in 1958.

The book tells us about John Cammett, author of the first serious English-language book on Gramsci. Published in 1967, Cammett's book gave an informative account of Gramsci's time as a revolutionary activist, but implicitly accepted that the Italian Communist Party of the 1960s was a loyal continuation of Gramsci's ideas. Rosengarten tells us that Cammett joined the PCI, but remained open to other ideas: in the mid 60s he helped organise broad Socialist Scholars' Conferences in New York.

Oddly, Cammett's academic post was at John Jay College, a college which was founded to provide courses for police officers and which retains strong police connections.

Yet John Jay also provided office space for a long time to the avowedly-Marxist, pro-USSR but not CP, journal Science and Society. Its faculty still includes leftists.