“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries”, wrote Lenin at the start of his pamphlet State and Revolution, “the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander.
“After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it”.
Of no great revolutionary is that more true than Antonio Gramsci. He was jailed for his political activities from 1926 until the eve of his death in 1937; now the manuscripts of his Prison Notebooks have been put on display by the Italian state, in an exhibition running to 10 November in the Italian Cultural Institute in ultra-posh Belgrave Square, London.
A talk to mark the opening of the exhibition was so popular that the Institute removed all chairs from the meeting room and had the audience, of about 300, standing shoulder to shoulder as in a crowded Tube train.
The main talk, by Silvio Pons, president of the Gramsci Foundation in Rome, was a polished but bland description of the spread of Gramsci’s writings, in translations and new editions, since the 1970s. The short speech after Pons’s by the Italian ambassador was more political.
The ambassador is a career diplomat, and was chief diplomatic adviser to Mario Monti when Monti was the “technocrat”, “above-parties” prime minister of Italy. He mentioned, however, that Gramsci favoured state education giving equal opportunities to working-class students, and supported European unity.
The 33 large-format, hardback manuscript notebooks are a remarkable sight. Almost all the writing is in the format of short observations, often crossed out and replaced by revised versions. The handwriting, even when Gramsci was desperately ill, is always neat, meticulous, tidy, and so are the crossings-out.
One of Gramsci’s chief critical comments on the Italian socialist movement of his youth was that it was insufficiently literary. It relied too much on rousing speeches and loose agitational journalism.
Partly inspired by the contrary example of the Bolshevik tradition in Russia, Gramsci set himself to create a new sort of socialist writing: every phrase pondered, honed for precision, thought through carefully before it was set down, reviewed, revised.
“The subaltern classes”, he wrote, “have an interest in knowing all truths, even the unpleasant ones, and in avoiding the... deceptions of the upper class and — even more — their own".