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Derek Boothman (ed. and translated): Antonio Gramsci, A Great and Terrible World': The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926.

Derek Boothman (ed. and translated) Antonio Gramsci, A Great and Terrible World': The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2014), ISBN 9781608463930, 384pp, 25[pound sterling].

For scholars of communism, the writings and political thought of Antonio Gramsci have long presented something of an enigma. For Gramsci--after some initial resistance--became an enthusiastic advocate of the Comintern's United Front tactics as the PCI representative in Moscow in 1922-3 and then party leader (1924-6) prior to his imprisonment by Mussolini's fascist state in November 1926. Yet, Gramsci is most often remembered today not as a leading Comintern figure of the 1920s, but rather, as one of its most ardent critics in the Western Marxist tradition.

This anti-Comintern interpretation of his work has been particularly strengthened by a tendency among Gramscian scholars to analyse his thought mainly through the lens of his late writings and particularly the Prison Notebooks (1929-35) that are--with some justification--presented as his 'most advanced thought' in which he renounces the rapidly developing Stalinism of the Comintern's 'Third Period' (1928-33) and his earlier 'Bolshevism' and develops a new more open, democratic and ideologically sophisticated theory of 'Western Marxism' under the all-pervasive category of hegemony. Here the well-known dispute with the Comintern leadership in 1926 on the eve of his incarceration through his two letters to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (via Togliatti)--published in this volume--criticizing its excessive disciplinary measures against the Russian Opposition (primarily Trotsky) take on a particular importance since they reinforce the notion of a pre-prison Gramsci committed to the Comintern and Bolshevization and a post-prison Gramsci who eschewed these commitments for his theory of hegemony. Moreover, there is a manifest tendency in this approach to homogenize the theory and strategy of the Comintern throughout the 1920s as an inevitable descent into Stalinization that gives scant attention to the significant ideological and strategic divisions within, and breaks between, the overlapping periods of the United Front (approx. 1921-27), Bolshevization (approx.. 1924-28) and the Third Period (approx.1928-33).

There is no doubt that in English-speaking countries this interpretation of the Prison Notebooks as a new departure for Gramsci from his 'Comintern years' has been aided by an over-reliance on anthologies of Gramsci's pre-prison writings which incorporated only a smattering of his correspondence as PCI Representative in Moscow and Vienna and party leader from 1924-26. Indeed, they tended to conclude with the two critical letters noted above, thus nurturing the sense of a break in his thought even further.

Derek Boothmans new collection of Gramsci's pre-prison letters published for the first time in English--including the bulk of the correspondence with the Comintern and the PCI leadership from 1922-26--promises to both challenge and enrich the prevalent notion of the late Gramsci as a 'Western Marxist' on an anti-Comintern trajectory, and to inform some central debates in Comintern scholarship in the process. Until now, these were largely inaccessible to those without a good knowledge of the Italian language. (*)

The great strength of Boothman's book, to my mind at least, is that it brings to light in a manner that the current English language anthologies do not, the extent to which Gramsci was immersed in the politics and strategy of the United Front in his pre-prison years and committed to its key objective of winning over the working masses--and particularly the rural masses. The Comintern letters reveal in particular how as Party leader he worked tirelessly to 'translate' and implement the United Front in Italian conditions against the opposition in the PCI led by its ex-leader Amadeo Bordiga up until 1926. They thus give further insight into how United Front and Bolshevization strategies pursued by the Comintern in the early and mid-1920s overlapped both chronologically and spatially and the extent to which the processes of Bolshevization and Stalinization of the Comintern were uneven ones across communist parties. Thus, in Italy--as Boothman's volume reveals--the continuing commitment to United Front tactics by certain key players at the centre (especially Bukharin) and the sense that the threat to the Comintern leadership (increasingly dominated by Bukharin and Stalin) was from a Trotskyite leaning 'Left' faction (Bordiga and his allies) created conditions in which Gramsci as party leader could continue to pursue United Front tactics up until his imprisonment in late 1926, when in other countries it was being rapidly superseded by Bolshevization.

In this sense, Derek Boothman's volume promises to ignite once again the debate in relation to Gramsci's relationship with the Comintern, and indeed, the complexities of the Comintern's contradictory attempts to both retain United Front tactics and pursue the Bolshevization of its member parties. In fact, the letters suggest that Gramsci was supported by Comintern leaders such as Zinoviev, Bukharin and Humbert-Droz, initially at least, not because he could be relied on to Bolshevize the PCI, (**) but rather, because he was determined to transform the PCI from an inert elitist, sectarian and rigidly disciplined hierarchical machine of fanatical and loyal communists (Bordigas conception of the Party) into a mass political movement that was capable of compromise and alliance with other popular forces. For Gramsci, this alone could secure the goal of winning over the Italian masses and defeating fascism and capitalism. As any reader of the Prison Notebooks will affirm, these were not positions that were abandoned or rejected in his later writings, but rather, formed a crucial intellectual underpinning to his theory of hegemony which reworked and critically appropriated their most useful insights in an implicit attack on the Stalinization of the Comintern in the Third Period. Gramsci thus emerges from this volume as a thinker who had a more nuanced and complex relationship with the early Comintern than is sometimes suggested.

Those familiar with Derek Boothmans Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks* will not be surprised to find the same thorough and engaging scholarship in translation and editorial clarity and explanation that characterized that work in the introduction and critical apparatus that accompanies this volume. For Anglophone scholars of Gramsci, the book fills an important gap in the literature and will sit nicely alongside the late Frank Rosengartens Letters from Prison.** Scholars of the Comintern too should find space for this important and most welcome publication.

* The most of Gramsci's known pre-prison correspondence was published in Italian in Gramsci, A. Lettere 1908-1926, ed. Antonio Santucci, Turin: Einaudi, 1992. The full catalogue will only come to light in Italian with the completion of the 'National edition of Antonio Gramsci's Writings' currently being edited by the Instituto della Enciclopedia italiana and published by Treccani (Gramsci, 2009 and 2012). As Boothman notes in his introduction about two thirds of the known pre-prison correspondence is incorporated in his book, including a few previously unpublished letters.

** Bates, T.R. 'Antonio Gramsci and the Bolshevization of the PCI,' Journal of Contemporary History 11 (1976): pp115--131.

Mark McNally, University of the West of Scotland
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Author:McNally, Mark
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2016
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