A Great and Terrible World is a selection of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s pre-prison letters. The letters range from Gramsci’s early student days, to his rise to prominence in the socialist movement, and the days shortly before his imprisonment by the Fascists in 1926. For good reason, Gramsci’s ideas in the Prison Notebooks are usually the ideas that scholars and radicals have focused on, seeing them as representative of his mature thought and his development of Marxist ideas in original and important ways. However, the ideas in the Notebooks did not arise abstractly from his head. His personal and political education and experience in the years prior—especially the years as a leader in the Italian and international socialist movement—provide the necessary foundation for them.
Boothman provides crucial context to the issues and debates that Gramsci’s letters touch on, without which the reader can get lost or find the letters confusing. As important, if not more so, are the endnotes. Without them, reading the letters can be hard to follow. With a few exceptions, the letters that Gramsci responds to are not in the main body of the book. The endnotes explain the content of those letters and provide the bigger picture in which the debates take place. This format can make the reading a bit slow. Footnotes would have been better.
The book’s first two chapters cover Gramsci’s letters before his commitment to organized political activity in the socialist movement. In addition to offering hints of his later political trajectory, they give a window into formative experiences of Gramsci’s life that will stay with him—the ongoing struggle with his health, his constant lack of funds, his great intellect, and his interest in linguistics.
Gramsci came from a Sardinian peasant family. Though poor, the family tried to send Gramsci to school in order to develop his intellectual skills, as they could see his potential at an early age. His letters during this stage of his life are mostly to his father stressing the urgency of money to pay rent and school fees for exams. “I was really in deep waters,” he worries. “I hope from now on you won’t find yourself in financial difficulty because you must believe that…without your 20 lire I wouldn’t be able to go on.”
He was able to go on, but often living in flats without heat or furniture. Gramsci was known at the cafes to eat very sparingly in order to conserve what funds he had. Those conditions often exacerbated a multitude of health problems that followed Gramsci his entire life. From having to miss and retake exams in his early life to missing meetings of the Communist International while recovering in the hospital to his eventual failing health in prison, it was a struggle that makes his life’s work that much more impressive.
As Gramsci moved on to a university education, his sharp intellect was recognized by his professors. In particular, his love and study of linguistics made him a rising star in the field. His reputation as a linguist remained with him for his life. The UK Sunday Worker referred to him as a linguist on the eve of his trial in 1926 and Italy’s senior linguist “Tullio De Mauro, remarked . . . ‘Gramsci wasn’t a Marxist at all . . . Gramsci was a linguist…who just by chance became the Secretary of the Communist Party.’”
He potentially would have had a long academic career if the Russian Revolution hadn’t inspired him to become a full-time socialist organizer and writer. He had moments in his early life that gave a hint to his future commitment to socialism. His brother, Nonnaro, was the treasurer of a local trades council during a strike, and the police were also investigating him. His family was in a panic over this and Gramsci wrote a letter defending his brother and asking for calm from his family. “Since there has been a strike and since Nonnaro is treasurer of the Trades Council, the police wanted to know his address, so as to impound the strike funds and bring the strike to an end. But the strike in any case stopped on its own account and the funds stay where they are.”
It was the period around World War I, and especially after the Russian Revolution in 1917, that Gramsci became a regular contributor to the socialist press and a socialist organizer, turning down academic posts to be more active in the movement. He wrote regularly for the publications Avanti! and L’Ordine Nuovo, the factory council paper he helped found, and quickly gained a reputation as a skilled theorist and strategist.
According to one Russian revolutionary traveling through Italy in the 1920s, referring to L’Ordine Nuovo under Gramsci’s direction, “In a very short time this small publication went on to become the central organ of the Italian Communist Party . . . Gramsci understands the situation in a more profound way than the other comrades. He has understood the Russian Revolution much more clearly.”
As a rising leader in the Italian Communist Party (PCI), in 1922 Gramsci was chosen as one of the PCI’s representatives to go to Moscow for the Second Enlarged Executive of the Comintern. There he stayed until late 1923 as the PCI representative to the Comintern. During this period, Gramsci learned a great deal. He worked with Leon Trotsky on cultural issues, contributing writings on the Italian Futurists for Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution.
More importantly for Gramsci’s development as a revolutionary theorist were the discussions and arguments going on at the time about the policy of the united front, which called for revolutionary parties to unite with reformist parties to win struggles and prove in practice the superiority of revolutionary socialism. Prior to these discussions, Gramsci’s position on working with workers’ parties outside of the PCI was in line with the ultra-left Amadeo Bordiga, a key leader in the PCI who thought that alliances or fusions with such parties like the Socialist Party (SP), for example, were to be avoided.
As late as July 1922, Gramsci rejected a general manifesto to the Italian workers proposed by Comintern representative Karl Radek because it proposed offering an alliance with the SP leader Serrati. This offer was designed to strengthen the fight against Fascism and win over the majority of the SP’s left to split and affiliate to the Comintern if the SP leadership refused the offer of unity. Gramsci wrote to Radek about the manifesto, “I approve it in its general lines. I cannot approve the part that deals personally with Serrati.”
Gramsci wanted it to be “modified by having it refer to the ‘maximalists’ in general.” The “maximalists” were the left of the SP that contained many revolutionary workers who had not yet come to the Comintern. Gramsci did not see the need to go to the leadership of the SP, which was not revolutionary, but reformist. But without an agreement for unity in action with the leadership, there could be no united front.
Moreover, he thought the chances of the PCI winning over the SP’s left were very low. In a letter to Zinoviev he writes, “The Serrati fraction absolutely does not want to split off from the reformists, and that all its attempts to give rise to the idea that it might instead want a split in the reformists have one sole scope: that of hindering the growth of a strong communist fraction with in the PSI and thus reducing to the minimum the inevitable leftward split.”
His views changed after his discussions with Comintern leaders like Lenin, Zinoviev, and Trotsky. Gramsci then tried to convince the PCI leadership and membership of the united front tactic and for the eventual fusion with the SP under Comintern leadership. In March of 1923, Gramsci wrote to the executive committee of the PCI, “We have to persuade ourselves that the policy of the International will always be based on winning over the Socialist Party.”
Later that year, Gramsci proposed, with Comintern support, the formation of a newspaper of the left. The paper would print contributions not only from the PCI but also from leaders such as Serrati who had been excluded from the SP as it drifted more to the right. Gramsci now gave the united front great importance, stating in reply to the PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti regarding the issue of the fusion:
You now think that the discussion here in Moscow has hinged around fusionism and anti-fusionism. This is only apparently the case. Fusionism and anti-fusionism have constituted the polemical terminology of the discussion, not its essence. The discussion was this: whether the PCI has understood the general situation in Italy, and whether it has been able to lead the proletariat, whether the PCI is able to develop a vast political campaign, in other words, whether it is ideologically and organizationally equipped for decisive action.
Gramsci would carry the lessons about the united front into his more theoretically developed ideas in the Prison Notebooks. It serves as the foundation of his writings on hegemony, for example. Many people focus on the struggle between the working class and the ruling class when talking about Gramsci’s writings on hegemony. This is an important part of the theory. But equally important is the revolutionary party’s contest for hegemony within the class struggle. The united front is designed to accomplish that goal. By proposing and forming alliances for the purposes of immediate struggle with larger reformist parties, revolutionary parties prove their ideas and practical leadership to the majority of the class. After Gramsci was won to the method, he championed it as the way to achieve hegemony within the class.
Gramsci rose to be the head of the PCI and led the party in its difficult attempt to organize underground in Fascist Italy. As a leader of an important section in the Comintern he often had to weigh in on issues affecting other sections including the Communist Party of the USSR. One instance of this that resulted in much controversy is a now famous 1926 letter written to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR in which he sided with the rising Stalinist bureaucracy against Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and other members of the Left Opposition who were fighting for democratization of the CP and Russian society.
Gramsci saw this time as a precarious moment in the international Communist movement. He worried that a split in the Russian party would more than likely lead to splits in parties in most countries and would result in a catastrophic setback for the workers’ movement. Unity was of paramount importance. In his letter, he agreed that Trotsky was the main threat to this unity but differed with hard-liners on three main points.
One, he was for reintegrating the opposition, whom he regarded as good revolutionaries, not enemies. Two, he thought unity must be won by persuasion, not brute force. And three, he reminded everyone that “Comrades Zinoviev, Trotsky, and Kamenev have contributed powerfully to educating us for the revolution, at times they have corrected us very energetically and severely, they have been our teachers.” He called for a unity that “cannot be mechanical and forced, they must be loyal and expressed out of conviction, not those of an imprisoned or besieged enemy detachment.”
Given what we know from the history of Stalinism, this may seem too naïve: clearly, Gramsci did not grasp that the survival of the revolution in Russia was at stake in the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky. But the letter hardly constitutes apologetics for Stalinism. The fact that Gramsci would soon alienate his fellow prisoners by questioning the dictates of the USSR’s CP indicates a still very independent mind committed to a revolutionary and democratic view of socialism.
Boothman’s volume contains a wealth of rich material that give us insight into the development of Gramsci as a person and leader. In addition to many political debates there are many personal letters to his family, his wife, Jul’ka Schuct, and friends. These will be of use to Gramsci historians but also to the general reader: they give a glimpse into the personal sacrifices made by Gramsci and Schuct for their revolutionary commitments.
They also dispel the myth and stereotype of the revolutionary man leaving his family alone and the wife and kids sad at home. While their separation for long periods took its emotional toll on both of them, Schuct was a committed Communist activist in her own right. She often found herself arguing with Gramsci about his important role in the movement and his need to carry though his commitments abroad.
While the book might be difficult to follow for readers new to Gramsci and the period it covers, it is an important resource to better understand the pre-prison Gramsci and the socialist movement of the time.