Colin Humphreys


Antonio Gramsci: Prison Notebooks

(April 1972)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.51, April-June 1972, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Antonio Gramsci: Prison Notebooks
Lawrence and Wishart, £6.

The appearance in English of a large chunk of Gramsci’s prison notebooks is a welcome event for all Marxists. It will enable many people to begin to come to terms with his ideas for the first time.

In a rich and varied selection of writings produced over a number of years there are far too many topics dealt with to be even touched upon in a brief review. I only intend to deal with two of the questions here.

The best of Gramsci’s writings are those on the role of Marxist theory, its relationship to previous systems of ideas and the class struggle, and the way it develops. He deals with all these questions at greater length than any other substantial Marxist since Marx’s own early writings. Yet more often than not his views have been misinterpreted in order to justify a position diametrically opposed to Gramsci’s own.

Central to Gramsci’s thought is the contention that a philosophy can only be understood and its importance judged when it is seen in relation to the notions held by a mass of people engaged in practical activity. He argues that everybody is a ‘philosopher’ in the sense that they all have a set of ideas in their heads. The specialist philosopher is an individual who concentrates on developing these ideas into a more or less coherent system.

But the ideas of ordinary people cannot be divorced from their actions. Ideas guide actions. And people change their ideas, when they change them, because they find that they no longer accord with active experiences.

A philosopher, then, is someone who succeeds in drawing out from the hodgepotch of ideas and notions that most people hold, a clear and coherent set of ideas that correspond to a particular set of practical activities. Insofar as he is successful in his task his philosophy becomes an ‘ideology’, a means of tying people’s ideas, and therefore their activities, together in a particular way, whether to defend the existing social structure or in revolutionary opposition to it.

Gramsci has often been accused of being ‘idealistic’. Some of his professed disciples have accepted this epiphet, claiming that his ‘idealism’ complements the ‘one sided materialism’ that Marxist usually are said to support, producing a sytheses of the two, which is ‘neither materialism nor idealism’. And some of Gramsci’s own statements seem to bear out this interpretation (he objects to talk of the ‘material’ world, although he himself is prone to talk about the ‘real’). Yet in fact there is nothing idealistic about Gramsci’s position. He stresses what Marx stressed, that man is not a passive product of the world around him, but actively intervenes to change it. This intervention, however, depends on his ideas – even although these ideas in turn derive from previous experiences. Men are not automatons and how their ideas change depends upon debate, reasoning and argument.

Pretended Marxists who try to deny this basic truth end up themselves by falling into an idealistic position. They wait around for the revolution to occur independently of real, concrete human intervention. Marxism, on the other hand, is thorough-going materialism: it attempts to grasp the material procesess by which new ideas develop – men’s interaction with the world and each other, the new understanding that begins to develop on the basis of this, the contradiction between this and methods, argument, propaganda, organisation – by which this contradiction is resolved.

The link up between theory and practice, ideology and struggle, was central to Gramsci’s thought. That is why, when he had to think up a synonym for Marxism (so as to fool his gaolers) he wrote of the ‘philosophy of practice’.

Some people have tried to water down this striking position. Indeed, even in this excellent translation, ‘practice’ is rendered as ‘praxis’, although he uses it to mean the same as the common-or-garden English word (and, after all, in German even doctors have their ‘praxis’.)

But Gramsci himself is absolutely unambiguous on the question.

‘One may term “Byzantianism” or “scholasticism” the regressive tendency to treat so-called theoretical questions as if they had a value in themselves, independently of any specific practice ... In short the principle must always rule that ideas are not born of other ideas, philosophies of other philosophies: they are a continually renewed expression of real historical development ... Identity in concrete reality determined identity in thought, and not vice-versa. It can further be deduced that every truth, even if it is universal and even if it can be expressed by an abstract formula of a mathematical kind (for the sake of theoreticians) owes its effectiveness to its being expressed in the language appropriate to the specific concrete circumstances. If it cannot be expressed in specific terms, it is a Byzantine and scholastic abstraction, good only for phrase mongers to toy with.’ (p.200)

Again, he writes that:

‘It is absurd to think of purely “objective” prediction. Anyone who makes a prediction has in fact a programme for whose victory he is working, and his prediction is precisely an element contributing to that victory ... Only the man who wills something strongly can identify the elements which are necessary for realisation of his will ... predictions made by people who claim to be impartial ... are full of idle speculation, trivial detail and elegant conjectures.’

Of course, this stress on the practical, ‘pragmatic’ relevance of revolutionary theory does not mean accepting the bourgeois philosophy of pragmaticism which asserts that to be valid ideas have to be an expression of the immediate activities of men as they take place in society as it is at present organised. That would be to ignore the fact that two sorts of practical activities occur in our society – those that sustain the present form of organisation and those that oppose it, pointing towards its eventual overthrow. Instead pragmatism reduces all human activity to the level of the forms of activity natural to bourgeois society and, in effect, backs up that society. That is why Gramsci can write

‘... the individual philosopher of the Italian or German variety is tied to “practice” in a mediated way, and there are often many rings on the chain of mediations. The pragmatist on the other hand wishes to tie himself immediately to practice. It would appear, however, that the Italian or German type of philosopher is more “practical” than the pragmatist who judges from immediate reality, often at the vulgar level, in that the German or the Italian has a higher aim, sets his sights higher and tends (if he tends in any direction) to raise the existing cultural level.’

One could sum up Gramsci’s position succinctly with the formula ‘the pragmatic element – yes; pragmatism – no.’

However, despite Gramsci’s own opposition to any ‘Byzantian’, scholastic rendering of theory, he was unfortunately forced to use a style in the prison notebooks that deliberately avoided dealing explicitly with the real problems developing in the class struggle. There was no other way in which he could deceive his prison guards as to the real nature of his writings. Unfortunately, there are still those on the left able to be confused by this – usually because their own academic orientation makes them want to be confused – into believing that somehow Gramsci’s ‘philosophy of practice’ can develop independently of the practical concerns of the revolutionary workers movement and that revolutionary theory cannot be expressed ‘in specific terms –appropriate to specific concrete circumstances’. Instead they deliberately cultivate the more obscure formulations to which Gramsci was forced to resort into a veritable mysticism which they parade under the name of ‘developing Marxist theory’.

The second important question which is raised by this volume concerns Gramsci’s treatment of the split in the international Communist movement from the mid-1920s onwards between revolutionary Marxism and Stalinism. This is not just a question of revolutionaries claiming Gramsci ‘for our side’. His attitude towards the rising bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and the Comintern must reflect upon the significance of some of his later writings on the party and the state.

But it seems that Gramsci took a very confused position – possibly a consciously confused position – on the issues involved. For instance, at a whole number of points he accuses Trotsky of wanting to spread revolution regardless of the objective circumstances. He writes that ‘Bronstein (i.e. Trotsky) in one way or another can be considered the political theorist of the war of frontal attack in a period in which it can only lead to defeats.’ Yet Gramsci knew at the time of the march on Warsaw (1920) it was precisely Trotsky who urged the danger of an offensive action that ignored real possibilities, and, again, it was Trotsky who decisively backed up Lenin in opposing the ultra-left ‘theory of the offensive’ at the Third Congress of the Comintern. Again, while Gramsci was writing, it was Stalin’s henchmen in the Comintern (including the Italian Party) who were urging the ‘Third. Period’ policy of attempting instant revolution everywhere. What makes the mystery deeper is that Gramsci, when given a rare opportunity to express himself, came out in favour of the position of the minority in the Italian CP who had been expelled over precisely this issue.

Perhaps this mystery will never be fully solved. But there does seem the possibility that Gramsci was prepared to make considerable concessions to Stalinist regime inside Russia and the Comintern, while also trying to maintain a degree of intellectual independence. In this, of course, he was not alone. After all, the majority of Bolshevik leaders from 1917 tried, during the twenties and early thirties to be with both Stalin and with the traditions of October – until Stalin himself sent them to execution after 1936. And even Trotsky continued to believe that somehow that Stalin’s apparatus of repression was a ‘degenerated workers state.’

The difference between Trotsky and Gramsci was that while holding this position, Trotsky never relented in his criticism of Stalinist totalitarianism. Gramsci at points almost seems to justify it, as when he writes that ‘the war of position (of which socialism in one country seems one version – CH) demands enormous sacrifices by infinite masses of people – so an unprecedented degree of hegemony is necessary.’ But that involves a view of the state which is light years away from the ‘state which is not a state’ of Lenin’s State and the Revolution and from Gramsci’s own writings of the 1918-1920 period.

However, none of these observations can detract from the value of this volume. Its editors are to be congratulated on both the translation and the footnotes (which are invaluable in guiding the reader through a veritable labyrinth of references and names in the text), although the introduction is a little weaker (the editors, for instance, seem to me to completely distort the meaning of one of Gramsci’s pre-prison writings, the Theses of Lyons, because of their own lack of comprehension of the problem of the united front). But the only real objection anyone can make to the volume is its price. Let’s hope a paperback edition appears soon.

Last updated on 16 November 2009