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New Left Review I/176, July-August 1989

David Forgacs

Gramsci and Marxism in Britain

Outside Italy, nowhere more than in Britain have Gramsci’s writings exercised so prolonged, deep or diversified an influence. Some of this has been channelled through the academic disciplines of history, political science and cultural studies, but much of it has worked directly upon the theory and practice of the Left. There has been widespread recognition of the importance of Gramscian concepts in freeing Marxism from ‘economism’ since the sixties, and in interpreting Thatcherism and the crisis of the Left since the mid–70s. What has been less remarked upon is that they have been central to the theoretical reconstruction of Marxism in Britain at all stages since the late 50s. [1] This article developed out of a short paper on ‘Gramsci and the British Marxist Tradition’ given at Marxism Today’s ‘Gramsci ’87’ (London, 11 April 1987), and out of two other papers read at the half-centenary Gramsci conferences in Rome (24–26 June) and Tokyo (28–29 November) and now published in the respective conference proceedings. I am grateful to Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn for their comments on an earlier draft. In my account of Gramsci’s reception in Britain I have drawn on personal recollections or unpublished papers of a number of people whom I here thank: Perry Anderson, Gino Bedani, Derek Boothman, Rosalind Delmar, Stuart Hall, Quintin Hoare, Eric Hobsbawm, Judith Hunt, Martin Jacques, Bob Lumley, Betty Matthews, Tom Nairn, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Anne Showstack-Sassoon, Roger Simon and Jeff Skelley. None of these is responsible for any errors in my account, and some of them would certainly dissociate themselves from my judgements and arguments. My discussion deliberately limits itself to political uses and reworkings by British Marxists. For a broader account of Gramsci’s reception in various fields, including non-British material, see Geoff Eley, ‘Reading Gramsci in English: Observations on the Reception of Antonio Gramsci in the English-speaking World 1957–82’, European History Quarterly, Vol. 14 (1984). A longer version of the same essay is published as a working paper by the Center for Research on Social Organization, University of Michigan. See also Harvey J. Kaye, ‘Antonio Gramsci: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies in English’, Politics and Society X (1981), 3. For an interesting look at the use of the hegemony concept in American historiography, see T.J. Jackson Lears, ‘The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities’, American Historical Review, Vol. 90, February–December 1985. An international Gramsci bibliography is currently being compiled by a group based in New York under the direction of John Cammett and Frank Rosengarten. The uses of Gramsci in Britain have been regionally specific; they have involved the overdevelopment of one side of his work at the expense of others. This imbalance can be explained by the needs which his texts have served to meet, the gaps they have served to fill in the culture of the Left. The impact made by new ideas never depends simply on their intrinsic quality; it also has to do with the degree of receptivity or resistance of the culture into which they enter. In the thirty-two years in which selections from Gramsci have been available in English, the culture of the Left in Britain and the political climate have both changed considerably. Gramsci has become more readable. But he has also become readable in different ways, as the meanings which have attached to his texts, the uses to which they have been put, have altered.

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