Before the Prison Notebooks.
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) is celebrated primarily for his notebooks written in prison between 1929 and 1935. The notebooks started to become known in the English speaking world in 1957, with the publication of a small selection from them in The Modern Prince and Other Essays; and they have steadily grown in influence and stature since then, particularly after the Selections from the Prison Notebooks was published in 1971. They were the result of Gramsci's intensive reading and reflection while in prison against the background of his earlier experience as a leading political activist in the socialist and then communist movements in Italy, and in the Comintern in Moscow.
Derek Boothman's edition of the pre-prison letters is a major contribution to our understanding of these formative pre-prison experiences of Gramsci, as well as providing illuminating insights into the relationship in the 1920s between the Comintern and its Italian section, the newly formed Italian Communist Party (PCI), and also the struggles within the Party which resulted in Gramsci emerging as its General Secretary in 1924. Derek Boothman is a distinguished translator and eminent Gramsci scholar. This selection of about 200, two thirds, of Gramsci's pre-prison letters is an immensely scholarly work, including some newly found letters published for the first time, and detailed corrections to the texts of some letters published in earlier Italian editions. They are contextualised in an extensive General Introduction, supplemented by clarificatory notes on many of the individual letters.
The sub-title of the book is 'A Great and Terrible World', which comes from Rudyard Kipling's Kim, and was frequently used in correspondence between Gramsci and his wife Julija, or Jul'ka, Schucht. It is an apt description of the times in which they lived. Gramsci was born in 1891 and grew up in Sardinia. He studied at Turin University from 1911-15, where he made his first contact with the socialist movement, but left in 1916 without finishing his degree to became a full time revolutionary as a journalist on the socialist paper Avanti! and then on EOrdine Nuovo, which later became the main publication of the Italian Communist Party, founded in 1921. He was centrally involved in the formation of the PCI and in 1922 went to Moscow as one of its representatives in the Comintern. Eighteen months later he moved to Vienna where he spent six months acting as the PCI's Foreign Bureau and engaging intensively in the discussions that led to a new leadership of the Party In April 1924 he was elected as a Deputy in the Italian Parliament and the immunity this gave him enabled him to return to Italy, despite the arrest warrant for him that had been issued in January 1923 by the newly installed fascist government. Shortly after his return he became General Secretary of the Party, which he remained until November 1926, when his immunity was lifted under emergency powers and he was arrested and imprisoned, effectively for the rest of his life.
The world of Gramsci's pre-prison life was indeed 'great and terrible': the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the factory councils movement in Turin, which Gramsci saw as the institutions of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the defeat of the European socialist uprisings, Mussolini's 'March on Rome' and the establishment of a fascist government in Italy in 1922. The pre-prison letters give a vivid impression of the complexities that Gramsci was dealing with, the evolution of his thinking, and his extraordinary ability to grasp and analyse rapidly changing situations. Three issues dealt with in the letters particularly interested me: the relationship between the Comintern and national Communist Parties, Gramsci's conception of the Communist Party, and his relationship with the Schucht family.
As Derek Boothman points out in his excellent General Introduction, it is difficult today to imagine the heady atmosphere that prevailed in the Comintern in Moscow in the early 1920s. The Communist (Third) International (1919-1943) was a single global institution of which the national communist parties were seen as national branches, albeit with a very considerable amount of autonomy.
The Comintern representatives of the Italian Party, under the guidance of its Presidium, and in the early years primarily its President, Zinoviev, were in constant communication with the Party's leadership in Italy.
Four letters are of especial interest in this connection. First, there is one of the few letters in the book not from Gramsci, a letter to the Delegation of the PCI from the five Russian members of the Comintern Presidium (Lenin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, Radek and Bukharin), dated 24 November 1922. In it they warn of a 'huge political error' if the majority of the PCI's delegation persisted in their opposition to the 'fusion' of the PCI with sections of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) which were seen by the PCI as too 'reformist'. The Russian Presidium members were in effect seeking to dissuade the PCI from pursuing an ultra-left course. They recommended instead that the PCI register its disagreement but nevertheless agree to follow the majority Comintern position in favour of fusion. Second is the famous letter to the Bolshevik Central Committee, written by Gramsci on behalf of the Political Bureau of the PCI, dated 14 October 1926, three weeks before he was arrested. The letter expresses concern at the divisions appearing in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party and the adverse effect these were having on the revolutionary parties, and especially the 'masses', in Italy and other countries. Thirdly, there is the reply to this letter from Togliatti in Moscow, dated 18 October 1926, giving his reasons for deciding not to present the letter formally to the Soviet Communist Party; and fourthly, Gramsci's reply to Togliatti, dated 26 October 1926. Gramsci supported the majority position within the Bolshevik Party, led by Stalin, but argued that the minority should not be excluded and should continue as part of the leadership and continue the discussion, as long as they accepted the majority position in practice.
This brings us to the second issue of interest, Gramsci's conception of the Party. His views changed during the course of his pre-prison revolutionary work. In the period leading up to the formation of the Italian Communist Party, which was itself the result of a split from the PSI, Gramsci initially argued against 'fusion' with what he saw as reformist trends among those who had remained within the PSI. Later, as a result of his experiences in Moscow, he moved towards the position of the Comintern, which at that time favoured bringing in the centrist 'maximalist' group remaining within the PSI, as well as the left 'terzini' group, already closely aligned with the PCI. Continuing differences in attitudes to fusion were reflected in the three tendencies evident within the PCI: the left (Bordiga); the right (Tasca); and the Turin Group, which evolved into the Leninist centre (Gramsci). Differences and sometimes polemical discussions continued, but Gramsci, while uncompromising on his changing view of the correct line, and eventually working towards the creation of the new centrist leadership of the PCI, nevertheless argued that the Party's leadership should not consist only of the majority position, but should also include all views within the Party. He opposed 'fractionalism', but argued that discussion in the period leading up to the Congress should be completely free, limited only by the framework of Comintern decisions. After the Congress had made its decisions and they had been elaborated by the leadership, the decisions should then be carried out by all. This is exemplified by the illegal Third CPI Congress held in Lyon in January 1926, at which Tasca's right supported Gramsci's centre, and together they received 90 per cent of the votes. Yet despite Bordiga's left tendency winning only 10 per cent of the votes, Gramsci persuaded him to accept membership of the Central Committee.
Gramsci was always preoccupied by the relationship between the Party and the 'masses'. Thus, for example, the difference in attitude between Bordiga and Gramsci towards the August 1922 general strike, known as the 'legalitarian' strike, was later summed up by Togliatti as: Bordiga waiting for the 'masses' to reach the stage when they would call upon the Party to lead the revolutionary bid for power, and Gramsci accompanying the class through all the intermediate positions leading up to the stage of a bid for power. Derek Boothman's General Introduction clearly situates Gramsci's letters within this complex and rapidly changing context. It also provides a guide to Gramsci's complex and poignant personal life, above all with the Schucht sisters.
The first two chapters of the book cover letters written by Gramsci to his family and friends during his upbringing in Sardinia and his university days in Turin. What emerges are the financial straits of the family and Gramsci's constant money worries, which affected his living conditions and had a lifelong adverse effect on his health. Then there is a special section towards the end of the General Introduction on the Schucht family, which is especially needed given the large number of letters included in the book from Gramsci to Jul'ka Schucht, whom Gramsci married in September 1923. The Schucht family were Bolsheviks of German origin, living in Moscow, where the father, Apollon, was a friend of Lenin. Gramsci met first Jul'ka's older sister, Evgenija, or Zenja, in a sanatorium where they were both being treated for ill health, and it was Zenja who then introduced him to Jul'ka. It seems that he may have been first attracted to Zenja, before his attentions switched to Jul'ka. The Introduction reports work done at the Gramsci Institute which establishes that affectionate letters previously thought to have been written by Gramsci to Jul'ka were in fact written to Zenja. Gramsci and Jul'ka first met in September 1922, were married in September 1923, and Gramsci moved to Vienna in December 1923, where he stayed until he returned to Italy in May 1924. Their first son, Delio, was born in August 1924 and Jul'ka and Delio, together with Zenja, went to Italy towards the end of 1925 where they spent several months with Gramsci before returning to Moscow, probably in August 1926. This was the last time he saw them, and he never saw their second son, Giuliano, born shortly after Jul'ka's arrival back in Moscow. As a coda, mention should also be made of a third sister, Tat'jana, or Tanja, who lived and worked in Rome, where Gramsci got to know her in 1925, and who became his principal contact with the outside world during his prison years and was instrumental in retrieving and saving the Prison Notebooks after his death in 1937.
From the time they first met to the last time they saw each other Gramsci and Jul'ka were living in the same city, or at least country, for roughly only two years, but not necessarily together, and with frequent absences when one or the other was away working. His letters to her, almost weekly during the times they were apart, are constantly regretting that her letters to him were rather intermittent. One gets the impression that Gramsci was emotionally rather lonely and isolated. However, the overwhelming picture that emerges from the pre-prison letters as a whole, written in Turin, Moscow, Vienna and Rome, is of Gramsci's total commitment to the revolutionary movement, which he pursued, despite recurring periods of illness and general ill-health, with single-minded determination, displaying a remarkable creative ability to analyse the rapidly changing political situation and in the course of doing so changing and developing his own political position. As Derek Boothman points out in his Introduction, we see from the letters the beginnings of many of the key concepts and interests subsequently developed and explored in the Prison Notebooks: superstructures, high and popular culture, passive revolution, subaltern groups, social and political alliances, civil society, hegemony, and the Southern question.
These letters will be of interest above all to Gramsci scholars and people interested in the relations between the Comintern and its national sections, but they also, together with the Introduction and Notes, capture the vibrancy, commitment, creativity and brilliance of those who worked in the early communist movement, before the Stalinist degeneration set in.