Antonio Gramsci was a leader of the Italian Communist Party in its early days, when it was a real revolutionary party, and is now famous for the Prison Notebooks he wrote when jailed by Italy’s fascist regime between 1926 and just before his death in 1937.
In this new collection of his letters from between when he was 17 and living away from home in order to study for entrance to university, and his jailing in 1926, the longest section is from just six months, between December 1923 and May 1924.
Gramsci was then in Vienna, working with the Communist International (Comintern) to construct a new centre for the Italian Communist Party (CP), which was crippled in its functioning within Italy by repression after the fascist coup of October 1922.
By then Gramsci had been convinced, through many discussions with Russian revolutionary leaders like Trotsky, of the Comintern’s argument that revolutionary socialists should use united front tactics to win over social democratic workers, and propose to those workers a joint battle for a “workers’ government”.
The pivotal letter of 1923-4 is one to other CP leaders of of 9 February 1924, already available in other collections.
In it Gramsci sympathises with the Trotskyist opposition in Russia, established in 1923. “By demanding a greater intervention of the working-class element in the life of the Party and a reduction in the powers of the bureaucracy, they basically want to safeguard the working-class and socialist nature of the Revolution”.
He states that even before the CP’s Rome Congress [of March 1922] he “declared in favour of the united front right up to its normal conclusion of a workers’ government”. He had accepted the Rome Theses, hostile to the political united front, out of deference to the CP’s outstanding leader Amadeo Bordiga, but now the time has come for change.
He disputes Bordiga’s thesis that “consciousness and will [are not] faculties that may be attained by or expected from single comrades, since they are realised only through... a collective unitary organism”.
That thesis, he says, has led to a conception of Party organisation as focused on “the creation of an apparatus of functionaries who [are] orthodox as regards the official conception...[as if] the revolution depends solely on the existence of just such an apparatus”.
He counterposes “a dialectical process” of interaction between the party’s training of activists who are educators on every level, responses to the spontaneous struggles of the working class, and the formation of policy.
He discusses “East” and “West”, but to argue that Bordiga’s claim that the West (Italy) demanded qualitatively different tactics from the East (Russia).
Other letters around that time show that Gramsci’s doubts about the united front were intertwined with doubts about the question of merger of the Communist Party with the “terzini”, the left-wing faction of the Socialist Party from which the CP had split in early 1921. The Comintern pushed for merger with the “terzini”; Gramsci was long sceptical.
The editor has entitled the volume “A Great and Terrible World”, because that phrase is used by Gramsci again and again in his letters to his wife Julia Schucht, living in Russia. Gramsci, in turn, got it from Rudyard Kipling. Kipling, despite his right-wing and imperialistic views, was one of Gramsci’s favourite authors.
In Kipling’s Kim, a story about a British boy who grows up as Indian in India, and then teams up with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher (lama), “a great and terrible world” is a catchphrase of the lama, signalling a presumedly wise old man’s dismay at hustle and bustle.
“’Now,’ said [Kim], when the lama had come to an anchor in the inner courtyard of a decent Hindu house behind the cantonments, ‘I go away for a while — to — to buy us victual in the bazar. Do not stray abroad till I return’.
“’Thou wilt return? Thou wilt surely return?’ The old man caught at his wrist...
“’Be comforted. Think how far thou art on the road — an hundred miles from Lahore already’.
“’Yea — and farther from my monastery. Alas! It is a great and terrible world’.”
Partly, I suppose, Gramsci is expressing empathy with Julia, an anxious and moody person. But his recitals in his letters to her of his own anxieties suggest that he empathised with the lama, too.
Wrestling with the impact of the surge of reaction in Italy on activists who been ardent revolutionaries in 1919-20, he writes:
“I am now receiving lots of letters from the Italian comrades. They want faith, enthusiasm, willpower, strength from me. They think I am an inexhaustible source... They are demoralised and feel lost.
“Sometimes I get a feeling of anguish. I have received a letter from a Russian comrade living in Rome who was a comrade of Rosa Luxemburg’s and of Liebknecht’s, and who then... escaped the massacre [by right-wing gangs in cahoots with the Social-Democratic government, who murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht in early 1919], and she too has written to me, discouraged and disillusioned...
“In our Party they are all young, and reaction has worn down their nerves and will, instead of strengthening them...”
His answer is to turn the CP out for effective education and agitation. The core of activists who have stayed loyal must be educated, trained, consolidated.
“Schematically, I would pose the problem in these terms: encourage, at least, the training of three hundred comrades with the ability necessary for directing the work of an entire province... Encourage the formation of at least three thousand elements suitable for becoming good Party branch secretaries”.
He works on publishing education materials, and organising correspondence courses and day schools.
Gramsci candidly recognises his “anguish” and his feeling that he needs “to be very, very strong, but how can I, if you [Julia] are not here...?” This suggests to me an explanation of a puzzle. After backing the Left Opposition in 1923, and while never backing Stalinism, why did Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks write senseless criticisms of Trotsky, conflating Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution with the “theory of the permanent revolutionary offensive” popular in some Communist Parties in 1920-1?
Whatever he wrote in 1924 about his views in early 1922, in fact for all practical purposes in early 1922 Gramsci deferred to Bordiga’s ideas. He did not feel strong and confident enough to challenge them.
In 1924-6, too, he did not feel strong and confident enough to challenge the ideas developed around the Comintern’s Fifth Congress in September 1924, which were not much challenged since at the time Trotsky saw no alternative but to wait quietly for a new chance to challenge Stalin. Deferring to those ideas, Gramsci cannot but have absorbed a dose of the anti-Trotsky polemics of the time.
The letters show that at the time he accepted the Comintern’s slogan of “Bolshevisation”, which was in fact a code-name for suppressing minority rights and free debate in the Communist Parties.
He must have been doubtful about the blustering verbal revolutionism of Zinoviev and the Comintern leadership, but never explicitly challenged it.
One letter is a report of a meeting he had in 1924 with the Croatian peasant leader Stepan Radic. Alliance with Radic was a keystone of the new Comintern policy, a mess of revolutionary demagogy which regarded peasant and national rebellion as tantamount to or a substitute for independent working-class politics.
Gramsci notes that Radic had previously looked warmly towards fascism, and is plainly aware that he is not to be trusted. (Radic would join the monarchist Yugoslav government in 1925, and be assassinated in 1928. Out of the current around him would come forces for the future Ustashe who governed Croatia as puppets for the Nazis during World War 2).
Yet the letter never questions the new Comintern orthodoxy.
In his later Prison Notebooks, Gramsci signals that he has rethought “Bolshevisation”, but not Stalin’s Fifth Congress period slogan of “two-class workers’ and peasants’ parties”.