Reviews > Books
19 March 2021
Antonio Gramsci: A Biography
by Andrew Pearmain
David Purdy writes on politics and economics and is a member of Democratic Left Scotland.
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A Marxist for the 21st century
David Purdy is impressed by the first English-language biography in 50 years of the great Italian communist and political theorist
FOR Andrew Pearmain, as for this reviewer, discovering Gramsci and becoming a Eurocommunist were formative political experiences. From 1968 to 1978, the heartlands of capitalism were rocked by political turbulence and intellectual ferment on a scale not seen since the 1930s. In the late 1960s, a wave of working class wage militancy swept across Western Europe, sparking a decade-long struggle over the future of managed capitalism, while the emergence of new social movements – second-wave feminism, gay liberation, black power and the green movement – challenged prevailing social norms and practices, including those governing the relationship between humans and the natural world, and opened up new fronts in the struggle against domination, injustice and oppression.
From the standpoint of socialist strategy, the problem was how to effect a marriage between the organised working class and these new social forces – a broad democratic alliance, no less – combining the experience and heft of the one with the energy and vision of the other. In wrestling with this conundrum, we drew inspiration from Gramsci, the Italian Communist leader arrested at Mussolini’s behest in 1926, who remained in prison until a few days before his death in 1937 at the age of 46. Our efforts were greatly assisted by the publication in 1971 of a fresh new English translation of Gramsci’s most important studies in history, politics and philosophy, written between 1929 and 1935.* Reading Gramsci liberated us from the twin dogmas of Stalinism and Trotskyism, taught us that communism and social democracy were branches of a single tree, and gave us the courage to think creatively about the question that still bedevils the left in the advanced capitalist democracies: if we cherish democratic institutions and norms and abjure the use of violence for political ends, how do we set about changing the world for the better?
A new biography of Gramsci was long overdue. The past fifty years have brought an outpouring of academic books on Gramsci’s political thought and take on Marxism, while his leading ideas have been pressed into service across the social sciences, in fields ranging from cultural studies to international relations. But there has been no life of Gramsci since Giuseppe Fiori’s book published in 1970.** Andrew Pearmain sets out to fill this gap for the benefit of “new generations of the concerned and engaged”. Correcting and updating Fiori's account in the light of historical research, he weaves together a compelling narrative of Gramsci’s life and times with a lucid exposition of his intellectual achievements.
Where Fiori gave us a Marxist martyr, Pearmain paints a nuanced and intimate portrait of a solitary and frequently anguished soul, who found social relations difficult and could be tetchy and sarcastic towards those closest to him, not least his wife, Julia Schucht, and her two sisters, Evgenia and Tatiana (“Tanya”). Yet this stunted Sardinian hunchback, whose head seemed too large for his body and who was afflicted throughout his life by debilitating headaches and ill-health, got on well with children, could improvise toys and games out of whatever came to hand, took a keen interest in folklore and delighted in telling stories about animals and pirates. And if his relations with adults were often fraught, he excelled as a correspondent. When they were posthumously published by Einaudi in 1947, Gramsci’s Lettere del Carcere (Prison Letters), written to his family and friends, became an instant classic of Italian literature.***
As Pearmain takes us through the successive phases of Gramsci’s life – his childhood and upbringing in Sardinia; the decade he spent as a student, journalist and socialist militant in Turin; the Ordine Nuovo period in 1918-20; the embattled early years of the Partito Communista d’Italia from 1921 to 1926; and Gramsci’s prolonged incarceration, cut off from the outside world, yet working, as and when his health permitted, on the Quaderni del Carcere (Prison Notebooks) – he repeatedly shows us that this brave, stoical, cultured and creative “philosopher of praxis” was a flawed and fallible human being.****
As behoves a good historian, Pearmain never forgets that, unlike us, the protagonists of his story had no idea how it would end. Consider, for example, the factory occupations that spread across the cities of northern Italy in September 1920. With hindsight, we can see that this moment marked the high tide of post-war proletarian insurgency. Once a negotiated compromise brought the occupations to an end, the tide ebbed and the first waves of fascist violence were unleashed against the organisations of workers and peasants and the parties of the left. Yet at the time, no one foresaw or could have foreseen that only two years later Mussolini would stage his “March on Rome”. Even then, the character of fascism remained a matter of dispute, not least within the Italian Communist Party and the Comintern. Was it a peculiarly Italian phenomenon or the precursor of an international trend? Was it a new type of socio-political formation or just the Italian equivalent of the repression which had been visited on American socialism in the early years of the century or the Freikorps which underpinned the social democratic government of Noske and Scheidemann in Germany after 1918?
As an admirer of Gramsci since my early twenties, I did not, before reading this book, expect to learn much, if anything, about either his life or his works. I was proved wrong on both counts. I discovered, for example, that when his sister-in-law Tanya smuggled the Prison Notebooks out of the Quisisana Clinic in Rome where Gramsci died, she did not, as I had previously assumed, arrange for them to be sent direct to Moscow. Instead, on the advice of Piero Sraffa, the Cambridge economist and Gramsci’s friend, who had kept him supplied with books and had organised an international campaign for his release, she deposited them in the vaults of the Banca Commerciale, where the director was a sympathiser. Here they remained for twelve months before being transferred by diplomatic bag to the headquarters of the Comintern in Moscow. Likewise, having previously read only selections from the Prison Notebooks, I did not appreciate that Gramsci had a lifelong fascination with the Catholic Church, regarding it as:
“… [the] most effective and durable global movement there has ever been … It touched the everyday lives and deepest thoughts of half of humanity and in some way conditioned the existence of all the rest. Without armed forces of its own or much by way of economic power, at least since the middle ages, the Church was still able to dictate the policies and actions of governments all over the world,” (p168).
Gramsci and us
Whether Gramsci is an old friend or an intriguing stranger, I guarantee that you will enjoy this biography. It is beautifully and sensitively written, sober in tone, wise in judgment and full of striking aperçus. Consider this poignant observation on Gramsci’s international reputation during the 1930s:
“... [he] was by turns lionised, ostracised and finally forgotten by the outside world. He died in almost total personal and political obscurity, just as he had been born and brought up on the periphery of life and history.” (p3)
Reading for pleasure aside, what can Gramsci offer us today? In a postscript, Pearmain casts a critical eye over Gramsci’s afterlives, both in Italy and in the rest of the world, paying particular attention to his impact on the British left, which has arguably been greater than anywhere else outside Italy. He notes that “[b]eing Gramscian in the twenty-first century can be deeply frustrating.” The concepts of hegemony and subalternity which Gramsci developed in order to explain the stability of democratic capitalism and, in particular, why people submit to their own exploitation and oppression, still make better sense of the past century than any other intellectual framework. Yet everywhere the organised left struggles to make headway or even to survive, despite the financial collapse of 2007–8, the ensuing recession, a decade of fiscal austerity and the resurgence of populist nationalism, not to mention global warming, the wider devastation of the natural world and the current global pandemic.
Could it be, as suggested by the late alt-right, US “shock-jock” Rush Limbaugh, that Gramsci is the left’s secret weapon which – thankfully from his standpoint – it is reluctant to use? Or has the left still not mastered the creative application of the philosophy of praxis? Or is it perhaps that Gramsci’s world was one in which social class formed the chief line of social division and that the concept of hegemony is harder to apply to a world in which, while class remains a prime source of privilege and disadvantage, its cultural and political salience has been eclipsed, at least in part, by cross-cutting divisions of gender, sexuality, race, nationality and so on? There is probably something in all three explanations. But wherever the truth lies, you will be better placed to seek it if you buy and read this book.
* Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, edited and translated by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Quintin Hoare (Lawrence and Wishart: London, 1971).
** Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, translated by Tom Nairn (Verso: London, 1970).
*** 218 of the letters in the Einaudi collection were translated into English by Hamish Henderson in the late 1940s, but remained unpublished until they appeared in a special double issue of The New Edinburgh Review in 1974. They were subsequently published in book form under the title, Antonio Gramsci: Prison Letters, translated and introduced by Hamish Hamilton (Pluto Press: London, 1996).
**** The expression “philosophy of praxis”, Gramsci’s codeword for the theory of historical materialism, was devised in order to escape the notice of the prison censor, but it is also richly suggestive. The Greek word praxis means action, transaction or business (affair) and conveys the idea of active doing as opposed to passive experience.