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.footnote1 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.

As a baseline for any discussion of Gramsci’s influence, two points need to be remembered about the peculiar nature of his legacy. The first is its fragmentary and posthumous character. His writings consist of letters, journalistic articles, internal party documents and a large body of manuscript notes only partially revised and systematized during his lifetime. This meant that his legacy was not passively ‘handed down’ but had to be actively constructed by his successors through a labour of assembly, rearrangement, annotation and (outside Italy) translation: processes which all involve interpretation and judgement. The first edition of the prison notebooks in Italy (1948–51) and the English editions published so far (1957, 1971, 1988) have been selections involving thematic reorderings of the original material. Only in 1975 did a critical edition appear in Italy, based on a chronological reconstruction of the manuscripts and including rejected drafts as well as revised versions. In English such an edition still has to see the light of day.footnote2

The second point is the lag between the time in which the prison notebooks were written (1929–35) and the time in which they were received in Britain. Gramsci came, so to speak, to Britain across a wide spatial, temporal and cultural gap: on the one side Italy between the wars, on the other post-war Britain; on the one side the Third International and the struggle against fascism, on the other the culture of Labourism and the post-1945 welfare state. In making the crossing some parts of his work fell away while others were creatively readapted. Several differences between Gramsci’s Italy and Britain are particularly relevant in explaining why this has been so. First, Italy’s history was one of early rise and decline of merchant capitalism, political partitioning, late unification and late industrialization; as a nation-state it had remained weakly integrated. Britain’s history was virtually the opposite. Second, Gramsci’s Italy had a mass of agricultural smallholders and proletarians, a relatively small industrial proletariat and an underdeveloped South; Britain had a large industrial working class and no peasantry. Third, Italy had young and weak parliamentary traditions which gave way to Mussolini’s ‘Caesarism’; Britain had old and resilient ones. Fourth, Italy had a culturally powerful Catholic Church; Britain had a strongly secularized culture. Fifth, in Italy the dominant labour movement traditions were Marxist and syndicalist; in Britain they were Labourist. Sixth, in Italy the dominant cultural traditions were idealist and historicist (Hegel, Croce); in Britain they were empiricist and anti-historicist.

Because of these differences, several parts of Gramsci’s work remained either untranslated or effectively unreadable in Britain. The untranslated parts include not only the many polemical forays in the prison notebooks (against Achille Loria, second-rate Italian novelists and so forth) but also whole tracts of text dealing with Croce’s philosophy, the Catholic movement, the culture of the subaltern classes, the history of intellectuals. The unreadable or less readable parts include those dealing with the problems of constructing a national worker–peasant bloc and with the ‘peasant question’ generally, as well as with the formation of a national-popular culture. One can hazard a guess that the welcome appearance of a complete text of the prison notebooks in English will not remove this unreadability. Conversely, the parts of the Gramscian corpus that have been most creatively drawn on have been those dealing with the mechanisms of political stabilization and regulation in advanced capitalist societies, their resources of cultural and ideological ‘hegemony’, the dynamic and flexible nature of political alliances, the recognition of civil society as a terrain of political organization and struggle, and the need for the Left to break out of an ‘economic–corporate’ outlook and construct a hegemonic politics of its own. In general the tendency has been to draw Gramsci forward in time, to put him into modern clothes.

Although Gramsci’s work did not go completely unnoticed in Britain in the two decades after his death, it made a negligible impact before it first appeared in book form in 1957, in Louis Marks’s edition of The Modern Prince and Other Writings.footnote3 Marks had submitted the typescript in early 1956 to the publishers Lawrence and Wishart, whose managerial board was at that time directly accountable to the higher committees of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It was passed to the Political Committee for vetting but blocked on the grounds of its heterodoxy by a number of members, including Emile Burns. However, the events of 1956—Khrushchev’s secret speech, the Polish and Hungarian crises, the consequent resignations from the cpgb—supervened to produce by the end of the year a changed political and theoretical climate. Maurice Cornforth, then managing editor of Lawrence and Wishart, pressed again for publication and the edition finally appeared in 1957.